When mom and dad are both Olympic gold medalists, the family's nutrition and fitness habits just come naturally, right?
Well, not exactly — even when those parents are gymnasts Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci.
"People think, here's two Olympic athletes. But there are no magic secrets," Conner said. "We're struggling to get our kid to eat healthy, too."
To do it, Comaneci recently banished sugary cereals from the house. And Conner has been known to leave a banana just lying around for 4-year-old son Dylan to find.
"Eventually, he'll get hungry and eat it," Conner said.
The sneaky nutrition harkens back to Conner's own childhood. After school, his mother would put out raw vegetables and dip.
"My friends would give me the weirdest looks," he said, noting they favored other kitchens, where frozen candy bars were usually on hand.
Taking on a New Opponent
Conner and Comaneci are celebrated for their Olympic wins: Conner won two gold medals at the 1984 Olympics and is the only American male gymnast to win gold medals at every level of competition. Comaneci was the first Olympic gymnast to score a perfect "10" and won three gold medals in the 1976 Olympics.
Nowadays, the couple — who married in 1996 and live in Oklahoma — are taking on a new challenge: obesity. In their home state, about 30% of children are overweight or obese, making it among the unhealthiest states in the nation for kids.
This year, that ranking led Conner and Comaneci to create a giant health fair for Oklahoma kids, where they could learn more about their health, BMI, and most of all, try a lot of sports. In addition to gymnastics, the event included archery, rowing, a fun run, and a basketball clinic sponsored by the Oklahoma Thunder basketball team.
When they're not doing advocacy work, Conner and Comaneci run a gymnastics magazine, a gymnastics supply company, and a gymnastics school. Their son, Dylan, loves to spend time at the couple's office at the gym and can be found swinging from bars and jumping on the trampoline.
"It's like a playground for him. He's super active," Comaneci said.
Gold-Medal Guidelines for Food, Fitness
Finding a variety of fitness options is one recommendation the couple has for raising healthy kids.
"You don't really know what they're going to like," Conner said. As a boy, Conner and his brothers played baseball and hockey, and his brother Bruce became a champion speedskater.
In addition to gymnastics training, Comaneci remembers kicking around the soccer ball when she was a child. She'd like to see more kids doing simple games to keep active. She suggests parents look for after-school programs that emphasize lots of activity, but it should never feel like a chore. To work, it must be both "tricky and appealing," Comaneci said. "They have to make it fun."
Fitness should be enjoyed by parents, too, she said. Not surprisingly, Comaneci and Conner remain in great shape and work out every day. Comaneci knows it's tough for many parents to do. Sounding like a typical working mom, she recommends getting it out of the way in the morning. "Later in the day, you have no time," she said.
While child athletes can be driven too hard, both Conner and Comaneci spoke up for the benefits of a child having a sport he or she takes seriously. That sense of purpose can help kids make good decisions about how they take care of themselves. Conner said he was focused on having productive practices, so he got his sleep, ate well, and didn't get into typical teenage mischief.
"It's a framework for making a lot of good decisions," Conner said. "You're hanging around other people who have similar mindsets. Half or two-thirds of the temptations are gone."
Comaneci agreed, saying it works as a convenient excuse. Teens can pass on drinking or other risky behavior because they "have practice in the morning."
And for some kids — certainly a young Bart and Nadia — the competition was its own kind of reward. It can keep a child's interest and motivation revving high.
"They like to show off," Comaneci said. "And win medals."
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: April 2011