What would you say is the top health concern for American kids in 2009? Drug abuse? Internet safety? Child abuse? Smoking? Bullying? Autism? These issues certainly concern all parents. According to a National Poll on Children’s Health conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, parents said it is childhood obesity that tops the list.
The Obesity Epidemic
Of all the factors endangering children’s health, obesity is the one that jumps to the front of the line. It is the one issue that is most out of control. Look around any school yard and you’ll see that the physical appearance of kids as a group has changed since you were in school. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has found that the obesity rate among children ages 6 to 11 has more than doubled in the past 25 years, going from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006. Among adolescents ages 12 to 19, that rate has more than tripled, from 5 percent to 17.6 percent. These numbers say nothing about those children who are not yet obese, but are clearly overweight. No other health concern is exploding at such mind-numbing rates.
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 percent of obese young people 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 such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem. These children are more likely than children of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults, and are therefore more at risk for associated adult health problems, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancers and osteoarthritis.
Yes, childhood obesity is a big deal.
How Did Our Kids Get So Overweight?
There’s no doubt that diets loaded with non-nutritious, high-calorie foods are at the root of kids weight problems. Yet the amount of daily calories consumed by our children has not increased so dramatically over the last 20 years to cause these double and triple rates. What has changed is the amount of daily activity. This has dropped significantly over the last 20 years and may be the true culprit in this explosive health concern.
The National Institutes of Health just 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 evaluated their movements to see if the children achieved the minimum 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommended for children by the U.S. Department of Health and Human services. They then conducted follow-up tracking with these same children at ages 11, 12 and 15.
How would your kids fare on such a test? Do they get a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity over the course of a day? If their daily habits mirror those of the kids in this study, they probably do -- if they are between the ages of 9 to 11 -- when 90 percent of the participating children met the recommended level. But by age 15, only 31 percent met the recommended level on weekdays, and a shockingly low 17 percent met the recommended level on weekends. This drop in activity means that teens are taking in more calories each day than they are expending through physical activity. That’s a recipe for excessive weight gain.
This drop in activity by our teens is largely due to the new electronic age in which we live. Unlike kids of past generations, our kids can socialize, play, and explore their world without even getting out of bed. While munching on high-calorie snacks, many spend their free time enjoying computerized social networks, video games, DVDs and iPods. It’s a whole new world.
The Government’s Role in this National Health Problem
Those government agencies charged with the welfare of our children are aware of and deeply involved in this crisis. 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 all for any help the government can offer. 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. My hope for stopping the childhood obesity epidemic lies in the home—your home.
What Parents Can Do in the 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 back against the obesity epidemic. You simply have to make the effort to get your kids out and moving. Why not start today by choosing one of the following activity starters and, as Nike says, just do it!
Household jobs: Give your kids daily exercise and get those chores done at the same time. Every kid can help vacuum, sweep, mow, and scrub 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 look for fun ways to get physical. Think: Pogo stick, stilts, indoor or outdoor croquet, hula hoop, Frisbee, Twister, hopscotch, badminton set, and fishing pole. And of course, pick up the staples such as a basketball, soccer ball, and/or football; bicycle, skates, tennis racquet, and lacrosse or field hockey stick.
Family outings: Family time is dwindling in 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 (the time, remember, when kids’ activity levels tend to drop). 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 or camp in the mountains or raft down a river. You might also 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! 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 in 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 it alone).
Taking it to the Next Step
These activities can keep a child active and fit, but if your child is already struggling with weight gain, it may be time for more proactive measures. Many children need peer support, structured programs and professional guidance to change the habits that sabotage their weight-loss efforts. When that’s the case, you may want to consider a weight-loss camp.
Many camps (like my own) offer state-of-the-art facilities to get kids up and moving, a multitude of fun activities, and opportunities for new friendships and renewed self-esteem. These camps teach kids to understand why they are heavier and how they can change. Even in the most difficult cases, when kids get away from the comforts of home and learn about nutrition, exercise and behavioral habits and combine that knowledge with a mandatory healthy diet and active lifestyle, they will succeed. They will lose the weight and they will keep it off.
You have the ability and the responsibility to keep your kids healthy and fit. Let’s all stand up and do it!
Tony Sparber is the founder/owner of two New Image Camps: Camp Pocono Trails, PA and Camp Vanguard, FL. New Image Camps are designed to provide the most comprehensive summer weight-loss program for pre-teens and teenagers in the country. For additional information call 1-800-365-0556 or visit www.newimagecamp.com