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Looking after your child's physical health

Looking after your child's general health will help them to manage their symptoms and reduce side-effects. It's particularly important to encourage your child to eat a healthy diet and to exercise as much as their condition allows them to.

The importance of a healthy diet

It can help your child to manage their condition if they keep to a healthy weight. Being overweight can make symptoms of arthritis worse and can put extra strain on their joints. Your child will really benefit from a healthy, low-fat, nutritious diet with plenty of vitamins and minerals.

Some children will be given steroids for their arthritis. These drugs can greatly reduce the symptoms of arthritis, such as swelling and pain, but they can lead to weight gain. This is another reason why it's important to watch what your child eats.

Vitamin D and calcium

Taking regular steroids can also leave some people at risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D helps the body to process calcium, which is needed to develop strong, healthy bones. Making sure that your child has plenty of vitamin D and calcium is important for bone health.

The best way to get vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight. Guidelines vary on how much sunlight people should be exposed to and this will depend on your child’s sensitivity to sunlight.

Most guidelines promote around 10–15 minutes of sunlight exposure every day on bare skin, for example on arms and/or legs, without sun cream in the months of June to September in the UK. People with darker skin need more exposure to sunlight and more exposure is needed in the winter.

Be careful not to let your child's skin get red or burnt.

Oily fish (salmon, mackerel) are the best natural sources of vitamin D in food. Many products also have vitamin D added to them, including:

  • cereals
  • milk
  • orange juice
  • yoghurts.

Foods and drinks that have a lot of calcium include:

  • dairy products (soya milk is the best source of calcium as a non-dairy alternative to milk)
  • green vegetables such as kale, collard greens and broccoli
  • certain nuts.

Many foods have calcium added, such as cereals and soy products.

Healthy treats

Finding the right balance of allowing your child some treats within a healthy diet is something that will come naturally to you as a parent. You don't want your child to feel like they are being punished.

Encouraging your child to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is very important. Healthy alternatives to fatty or sugary treats could include:

  • dried fruit
  • cereal bars
  • yoghurts
  • baked alternatives to crisps
  • wholemeal muffins
  • oatmeal biscuits
  • carrot sticks and dip
  • popcorn which is low in sugar and salt.

It's important to remember that while encouraging your child to make positive health choices is absolutely the right thing to do, some children naturally carry a bit of weight at different stages when they're growing up. So it's very important for your child's emotional well-being that while you instill a desire to be fit and healthy, you don't encourage them to be preocuppied about their weight.

Read more about healthy eating.

Exercise

It's extremely helpful if your child exercises regularly. There will be days when your child won't want to exercise and there certainly needs to be the right balance between exercise and rest. But exercise is important for children with arthritis for a number of reasons.

It's very important for your child to remain a healthy weight and it's also very important for joints to be exercised every day, otherwise they can stiffen up. Regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, is very important as it can maintain a healthy heart. Susceptibility to heart conditions later in life is more common in young people who have inflammatory arthritis.

Exercise will also be good for your child's self-esteem, confidence and overall sense of wellbeing.

Here are some ways to help your child exercise:

  • Be positive about the exercises and try to make them fun so they're part of play and not a chore. You may find that a star chart or special treats are helpful rewards for younger children.
  • It's often easier to keep to a daily routine, so you may find a regular session at the same time every day works well. You could try doing them before a favourite TV programme.
  • Stretches first thing in the morning may help to ease morning stiffness.
  • Encourage your child to take part in sports. Any non-contact physical activity is good exercise, especially swimming, cycling, dancing and walking. Swimming and cycling can often be managed when impact activities are painful.

Read more about exercise and arthritis

Encourage good oral hygiene

A child brushing his teethIf your child's arthritis affects their hands and/or wrists you should keep an eye on their oral hygiene as they may struggle to brush their teeth as well as they need to.

An electronic toothbrush is strongly recommended as well as alcohol-free mouthwash. Check that medications are sugar-free. It's sensible to always brush teeth after evening medications.

Get their eyes checked

Regular eye checks are important for young children with JIA as some can develop an eye inflammation called uveitis, which if untreated can damage their sight or even lead to a loss of vision. This is easily treatable with medication.

For more information, go to www.arthritisresearchuk.org.
Arthritis Research UK fund research into the cause, treatment and cure of arthritis. You can support Arthritis Research UK by volunteering, donating or visiting our shops.