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Putting a Stop to Childhood Obesity
The obesity epidemic
Of all the factors that put children’s health at risk, obesity is one that jumps to the front of the line. This is a problem that is out of control. Look around any schoolyard and you will see that the physical appearance of children as a group has changed since you were in school. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that obesity rates among children ages 6 to 11 have doubled over the past 25 years, from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006. Among teenagers aged 12 to 19, the rate tripled from 5 percent to 17.6 percent. This number says nothing about those children who are not yet obese, but are clearly overweight. No other health concern explodes at such a mind-numbing rate.
Why are rising obesity rates so great?
The media has done a good job of raising awareness of the health risks associated with obesity. To quickly recap: The Journal of Pediatrics recently found that approximately 61 percent of obese young adults have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. The US Surgeon General adds that children who are obese are at risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigma and poor self-esteem. These children are more likely than children of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults and are at increased risk of related adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer and osteoarthritis.
Yes, childhood obesity is a big deal.
How did our children become overweight?
There is no doubt that a diet full of nutritious, high-calorie foods is at the root of children’s weight problems. Yet in the last 20 years the amount of calories consumed by our children each day has not increased dramatically enough to allow for these doubling and tripling rates. What has changed is the amount of daily activity. It has declined significantly over the last 20 years and may be the real culprit in this exploding health concern.
The National Institutes of Health recently released the results of a long-term study of more than 800 children. At age 9, the researchers tracked the participants’ daily activity levels with an accelerometer (a device that records movement, which the children wore on a belt). They assessed the children’s activity to see if they achieved at least 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommended for children by the US Department of Health and Human Services. They then conducted follow-up tracking with the same children at ages 11, 12 and 15.
How will your children fare in such a test? Do they get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day? If their daily habits are similar to those of the children in this study, that’s likely — they’ll be between the ages of 9 and 11 — when 90 percent of the participating children meet the recommended levels. But at age 15, only 31 percent reached the recommended level on weekdays and a shockingly low 17 percent reached the recommended level on weekends. This decline in activity means that teenagers are taking in more calories than they expend through physical activity each day. This is a recipe for excess weight gain.
This decline in our teenagers is largely due to the new electronic age in which we live. Unlike children of previous generations, our children can socialize, play and explore their world without getting out of bed. While eating high-calorie snacks, many people spend their free time enjoying computerized social networks, video games, DVDs, and iPods. It’s a whole new world.
Government’s role in this national health problem
Those government agencies charged with the welfare of our children are aware of this crisis and are deeply involved in it. The CDC, for example, has guidelines, resources, programs, and websites for schools and community leaders to help address the growing obesity problem. You can visit the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity for links to articles such as Childhood Obesity and Physical Activity: School and Community Guidelines.
As someone who has dedicated her life to helping children get fit and healthy, I am all for any help the government can provide. I’d like to see local government funding more bike and pedestrian paths so families can get around without cars. I am happy when schools offer our children healthy meal choices. And I wish all schools had time for more physical education and recreation. These solutions require money, as well as changes in policy and philosophy—obstacles that will take time to overcome. We cannot afford to wait for the government to implement programs to help our children control their weight. My hope for stopping the childhood obesity epidemic lies at home—in your home.
What parents can do at home
You don’t need to hire a personal trainer, pay for a gym membership, or wait for your child’s school to “do something” to fight the obesity epidemic. All you have to do is try to get your kids out and about. Why not start today by choosing one of the activity starters below and, as Nike says, just do it!
Household Chores: Give your kids daily exercise and do those chores at the same time. Each child can help vacuum, sweep, mow, and mop around the house, and can also help wash the car, walk the dog, and set the table.
Gifts: Looking for a holiday or birthday gift that keeps on giving? Head to the sporting goods section of your favorite store and find fun ways to get physical. Think: pogo sticks, stilts, indoor or outdoor croquet, hula hoops, frisbees, twisters, hopscotch, badminton sets and fishing poles. And of course, grab staples like basketballs, soccer balls and/or footballs; Bicycles, skates, tennis rackets and lacrosse or field hockey sticks.
Family outings: Family time is shrinking in American homes today as parents spend more time at work and children spend more of their free time on electronic entertainment systems. Get the gang together and fight obesity with family trips that get everyone moving on the weekends (remember, that’s when kids’ activity levels are down). What are your plans for this coming weekend? Why not include something active like visiting a zoo or public park, walking around a nearby tourist attraction, or exploring nature trails (the National Wildlife Federation has a site at http://www.greenhour.org to help you discover nature within 15 minutes of your home. spot).
Vacations: When you plan your next family vacation, consider making it active. Find places where your kids can swim at the beach or bike on scenic trails. Maybe they like to hike or camp in the mountains or raft down a river. You can also explore state and national parks or go for a walk in a big city. There are many ways you can use your vacation time to get your kids up and moving.
Community Service: Many parents find that participating in service activities is a great way to keep the family together and active while working toward a common goal. Look for opportunities where you can plant flowers and shrubs around public buildings or parks, patrol nearby streets or local streams, help an elderly neighbor mow or rake their yard, or clean up a city park. The possibilities for service to others are endless, and many involve physical activity.
Plug in: ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ category, there are ways to use electronic entertainment to help kids stay active. Give your kids a video camera and have them create their own music video, their own reality show, their own “Dance With My Friends” TV special, or their own nature trail travelogue – anything that gets them up and moving! Nintendo’s Wii Sports lets kids “play” tennis, baseball, golf, bowling, and boxing by simulating the physical actions of swinging a racket, bat, or club, rolling a ball down an alley; or pull up the left jaw. Even the video sensation Guitar Hero gets up and moves while the kids “perform.” At the very least, try to rent DVDs or video games from a store within a mile of your home. Get your kids used to walking, skating, or biking (with you if they’re too young to go alone).
Taking it to the next level
These activities can keep a child active and fit, but if your child is already struggling with weight gain, it may be time for a more active solution. Many children need peer support, structured programs, and professional guidance to change habits that frustrate their weight loss efforts. While this is the case, you may want to consider a weight loss boot camp. Many camps (like my own) offer state-of-the-art facilities for kids to wake up and move around, lots of fun activities and opportunities for new friendships and new self-esteem. These camps teach kids to understand why they are heavy and how they can change. Even in difficult circumstances, children will succeed when they leave the comforts of home and learn about nutrition, exercise and behavioral habits, and link that knowledge with the imperatives of a healthy diet and active lifestyle. They will lose weight and keep it off.
You have the ability and responsibility to keep your children healthy and fit. Let’s all stand up and do it!
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