Can you guess what ranks as the top health concern for North American children in 2009? Thinking maybe drug abuse? Internet safety? Autism? Well, according to a national poll on children’s health, obesity tops the list.
The Obesity Epidemic
Of all the factors endangering children’s health today, obesity is most significant. No other health concern is exploding at such mind-numbing rates. Children today are simply much heavier than they were a few decades ago when we were young.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has found that obesity rates among children ages six to 11 has more than doubled in the past 25 years, increasing from 6.5% in 1980 to 17% in 2006. Among adolescents ages 12 to 19, that rate has more than tripled, from five to 17.6%.
Why Rising Obesity Rates Are Such a Big Deal
The media has done a good job of making us aware of the health risks associated with obesity. To quickly recap: The Journal of Pediatrics recently found that an estimated 61% of obese youth have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. The U.S. Surgeon General adds that children who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems including stigmatization and poor self-esteem. These children are more likely to become overweight or obese as adults, and are therefore more at risk for associated adult health problems, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancers and osteoarthritis.
How Did Our Kids become Overweight?
There’s no doubt that diets loaded with non-nutritious, high-calorie foods are at the root of our children’s weight issues. What’s surprising is that the amount of daily calories consumed by our children, is not the main cause of the obesity epidemic.
The National Institute of Health recently released the results of a long-term study of more than 800 children. Researchers tracked the participants daily activity levels with an accelerometer (a device worn on a child’s belt which records movement to evaluate if children were able to achieve the daily recommended 60 minutes of activity). Ninety percent of the participating children, ages nine to 11, met the recommended activity level. However, only 31% of children, ages 11-15, met the recommended level on weekdays and a shocking 17% met the recommended level on weekends.
Unlike past generations, kids today can socialize, play and even explore the world, without getting out of bed. While munching on high-calorie snacks, many spend their free time enjoying computerized social networks, video games, DVDs and iPods. This correlation of decreased activity with age, is an effective recipe for excessive weight gain.
The Government’s Role
Government agencies are aware of, and deeply involved in, the welfare of our children’s health. The CDC for example, has guidelines, resources, programs and websites for school and community leaders to help them address the rising obesity problem. You can visit the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity for links to articles such as Role of Schools in Addressing Childhood Obesity and Physical Activity: School and Community Guidelines.
As a person who has dedicated his life to helping kids get fit and healthy, I’m certainly an advocate for government assistance. I’d love to see local governments fund more bike and pedestrian paths so families can get around without a car. I’m happy when schools offer our kids healthy lunch choices and I certainly want all schools to provide more physical education and recreation time.
These solutions will require money, as well as changes in policy and philosophy—obstacles that will take time to overcome. We can’t afford to wait for the government to implement programs to help control our kids’ weight. Our hope for stopping the childhood obesity epidemic lies in the home—your home.
- Household jobs: Give your kids daily exercise and get those chores done at the same time. Most kids can help vacuum, sweep, mow, and scrub around the house. They can also help wash the car, walk the dog and set the table.
- Family outings: Family time is dwindling in North American homes today, as parents spend more time at work and kids spend much of their free time plugged into electronic entertainment systems. Get the gang together and fight obesity with family outings that get everybody moving on the weekends (when kids’ activity levels tend to decrease). What are your plans for this coming weekend? Why not include something active such as visiting a zoo or a public park, walking around a nearby tourist attraction, or exploring nature trails (the National Wildlife Federation has a site at www.greenhour.org to help you find a nature spot within 15 minutes of your home).
- Vacations: When you plan your next family vacation, think about making it an active one. Look for places where your kids can swim at the beach or bike on a scenic trail. Maybe they’d like to hike, camp in the mountains, or raft down a river. Explore state and national parks or take a walking tour of a major city. There are many ways you can use your vacation time to get your kids up and moving
- Community service: Many parents have found that being involved in service activities is the perfect way to keep the family together and active while working toward a common goal. Look for opportunities where you might plant flowers and shrubs around public buildings or parks, do litter patrol on a nearby road or in local streams, help elderly neighbors mow or rake their yards, or clean up a town park. The possibilities for service to others are endless, and many involve physical activity.
- Plug in: In the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ category, there are ways to use electronic recreation to help kids stay active. Give your kids a video camera and encourage them to make their own music videos, their own reality show, their own “dancing with my friends” TV special, or their own nature trail travelogue – anything that gets them up and moving! Game developers are getting the message. Nintendo’s Wii Sports lets kids “play” tennis, baseball, golf, bowling and boxing while mimicking the physical actions of swinging a racket, bat or club, rolling a ball down an alley; or pulling up the left jab. The video sensation Guitar Hero also gets kids up and moving as they “perform.” At the very least, try to rent DVDs or video games from a store within a mile of your home. Get your kids in the habit of walking, skating, or biking there and back (with you at their side if they’re too young to go alone).
By Tony Sparber