When it comes to the impact of parents’ health on a child’s wellbeing, most of the focus tends to be on the mother. Medical professionals, counselors, family and friends remind moms to stay in shape, and not to smoke, drink or use recreational drugs. Now there’s new research highlighting the importance of a father’s health and lifestyle choices and how that can affect a child.
In 2018, researchers at Ohio State University found that a father’s lifestyle prior to conception played a role in a baby’s future health. Exercising for even a month before conception affected children’s metabolic health. Kristin Stanford, PhD., the assistant professor who led the study, pinpointed increased sensitivity to insulin, decreased fat mass, and healthier body weight as the main benefits.
Her team was not the first to notice this trend,. Back in 2016, WebMD published an article on a study at Georgetown University that addressed the same topic. Rather than conducting their own experiments, the team at Georgetown examined existing research to look for connections and correlations. The study focused on not just exercise, but other healthy lifestyle choices, such as diet, drinking and smoking habits. It proved that fathers’ poor health choices correlated with birth defects, mental illness, and obesity in children. The study also identified paternal age as a contributing factor.
How does this happen? A man’s lifestyle choices affect his genes as well as the quality of his sperm. This, in turn, affects the genes he passes on to his children, and in some cases, even his grandchildren. Smoking, for instance, can cause damage to sperm, which may then pass on defects to his offspring.
After the Birth of the Child
Not surprisingly, Dad’s decisions after the child’s birth also affects children’s health. In fact, there is far more research to support the importance of dads becoming exemplary role models of health for their children.
According to Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, a family therapist and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center tells Parentology, “Children learn more from modeling than anything else. Learning about nutrition at school or lectures on getting out for some fresh air … don’t have nearly as strong an effect as seeing Dad actually exercising, especially when he doesn’t feel like it. Kids see what their parents do and absorb their values from that.”
Jeanette DePatie, a certified fitness trainer with 20 years of experience, agrees. She goes a step further to add, “Dads who have a healthy body image and a healthy image towards women can have a particularly strong impact on whether his children develop eating disorders later in life.” After founding EveryBODYcanExercise.com where she helps to keep moms and dads fit, she also noticed that, “Variety and exploration are great tools. If dad tries lots of healthy foods … eventually kids will, too.”
This is in keeping with the psychological research that speaks to learned behaviors regarding health that children pick up from their parents. According to one study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during their first five years, children learn the eating behaviors that create a foundation for the rest of their lives. They learn these behaviors via familial and cultural practices, attitudes and beliefs.
The Bottom Line
Without a doubt, science shows a strong correlation between a father’s health and lifestyle choices and the health of the genes he passes on to his children. However, it is not the only contributing factor to a child’s health and wellbeing. Even children dealt the worst of genes can later improve their health by living active and healthy lifestyles. Because of this, it’s important to remember that fathers — and other family members — play an influential role in not just the eating behaviors and exercise levels children adopt, but a positive and healthy body image.
Impact of Parents Health on Child’s Wellbeing — Sources
Ohio State University, Study: Dads Who Exercise Pass the Benefits to Their Children
WebMD, Dad’s Role in Baby’s Health Larger Than Thought?
Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, Baltimore Therapy Center
Jeanette DePatie, EveryBODY Can Exercise
HHS, Parental Influence on Eating Behavior