Childhood Obesity: A Growing Concern

Len Saunders

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know that childhood obesity has been a very hot topic over the years. The sad truth, there are many experts who are now claiming that this could be the first generation of children whose life expectancy may be shorter than their parents. Whether fact or fiction, these claims are not going away so quickly, and should send off a "red flag of concern" for any parent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese. Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled." Annika Sorenstam, World Golf Hall of Famer and President of ANNIKA Brand of Businesses states sometimes just the simplest changes to a child's routine can help them lead a healthier lifestyle such as "reducing their amount of sugar, increasing water intake, and reducing an hour a day from computer time."

The obvious question that pops to mind is.....Why is childhood obesity rising? What is different now than 30 years ago? What can we do to fix this issue?

According to three time World Champion and 1996 Olympic Decathlon Gold Medalist Dan O'Brien (The author of Clearing Hurdles: The Quest to Be The World's Greatest Athlete), "Childhood obesity is on the rise due to a few different factors. Fast food is cheap and easy to get and parents are busy. Snacks have become a part of daily diet, and most of these snacks are very unhealthy (chips, cookies, candy). By the time the child understands that he is overweight or at risk, he hasn't been educated enough on how to fix the problem. Physical education must be mandatory through all years of education, K-12. Parents should take more responsibility in providing healthy meals and snacks for their children."

Fitness expert Andrea Metcalf believes "the change in school mandates for including PE in the curriculum across the country has had a significant effect on childhood obesity rates. Illinois is the only state that still requires a physical education component in the school system. We have cut funding to something that should be a requirement - movement for our children. The "recess" periods aren't enough and have no purpose or understanding. Additionally, products for dietary choices have increased - at one time there were 2 snack choices or brands - now 80% of the grocery store choices are nutrient poor and higher calorie than needed to grow a healthy child. Lastly, it cannot be forgotten that "play" has now become more organized and competitive leaving many children not wanting to participate. We took the backyard games and put them on parent coaching/raging fields."

The important thing is to educate children on healthy lifestyle. In early May, millions of children participated in an event called Project ACES or All Children Exercise Simultaneously. On May 2, 2012, children all over the world exercised simultaneously to promote healthy lifestyle and combat childhood obesity. Events like this bring awareness to children about exercise, nutrition, adequate sleep, and proper hydration.

Where "children and play" were natural companions 30 years ago, "children and technology" seem to be the stronger allies with modern day youth. Many years ago, a child's idea of 'play' was to go outside and perform some type of physical activity, whether going for a bike ride, playing basketball, or walking to a friends house. Now, 'play' can take on a whole new meaning, where if could refer to computers, video games, iPads, cell phones, or countless other electrical devices. The age of technology as assisted mankind with advancements in medicine, communication, and entertainment. Sadly, it may also be causing a generation of couch potatoes.

Sorenstam agrees, "Kids are not participating in activities as much as they should every day. A lot of time is spent in front of computers, video games and TVs. In addition to that, kids diets are not as health conscious as they should be. (i.e., a lot of sodas, fast food and processed food, which, together, is a bad combination)."

According to Francesca Zavacky, Project Director at NASPE (The National Association of Sport and Physical Education), "Today's technology-centric world, combined with an over-scheduled and mostly sedentary lifestyle is teaching our youth that the new normal is eating fast food on the run, and foregoing an active lifestyle for video games and seat time for academics is more valued. Today's school-aged youth rarely receive a comprehensive health education where they learn prevention and healthy practices in the school setting, and physical education is being eliminated as a daily subject. How will our children learn to keep their bodies in peak condition for the rigors of today's busy lifestyles if they do not have the opportunity to learn those skills throughout their education careers? Health education and physical education must be deemed core academic subjects at the federal level, so that every state in the US is required to provide a comprehensive health and physical education to every child in the US, maximizing their potential to be healthy across the lifespan."

So, what can a parent do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Set technology time limits.

  • Walk to school with your kids.

  • Give them healthy choices at meal or snack time.

  • Feed them portions appropriate to their size, not their parents.

  • Reduce the TV time.

  • Reduce fast foods.

  • Reduce the liquid candy.

  • Make physical activity part of their daily routine.

  • Support your local physical education program.

  • Support your local recreation program.

  • Parents should lead by example.