Putting a Stop to Childhood Obesity


What’s the top health concern among parents for American kids in 2009? Child abuse? Drug abuse? Internet safety? Smoking? These concerns certainly have merit, but according to a National Poll on Children’s Health conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, parents said childhood obesity tops the list.

The Centers for Disease Control has found that the obesity rate among children ages 6-11 has more than doubled in the past 25 years, rising from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006. Among adolescents ages 12-19, the rate has more than tripled, from 5 percent to 17.6 percent. And these numbers say nothing about those children who are not yet obese, but are clearly overweight.

And while no other health concern is exploding at such mind-numbing rates, the health risks associated with obesity are even scarier. 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, cancer and osteoarthritis.

How Did They Get So Fat?
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, however, is that the amount of daily activity has dropped significantly over the last 20 years.

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 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 9 and 11 years old – 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.

In the new electronic age in which we live, 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.

Unplug and Get Moving
The CDC has guidelines, resources, programs and Web sites for school and community leaders to help them address the rising obesity problem. Local governments, too, are funding more bike and pedestrian paths so families can get around without a car. And schools are offering healthier lunch choices.

But one of the most important keys to stopping the childhood obesity epidemic lies in the home. Here’s what you can do.

• Household jobs – Give your kids daily exercise and get those chores done at the same time. Every child can help vacuum, sweep, mow and scrub. And don’t forget washing the car, walking the dog and setting the table.

• Gifts – Want a 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: jump robe, Pogo stick, hula hoop, Frisbee, Twister and hopscotch. And of course, pick up the staples, such as a basketball, soccer ball, bicycle, skates and tennis racquet.

• Family outings – Don’t allow the kids to spend all of their free time plugged into electronic entertainment systems. Get everyone together and fight obesity with family outings on the weekends (the time, remember, when kids’ activity levels tend to drop). Take a bike ride or visit a public park. If it’s too hot, then take a fast walk inside the closest shopping mall (leaving your wallet at home!).

• 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.

• 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.

Taking It To the Next Step
These activities can keep a child active and fit, but if your child already is 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 weight-loss efforts. Consider looking into a weight-loss camp for next summer, where kids engage in a multitude of fun activities, meet new friends and gain renewed self-esteem. When kids get away from the comforts of home and learn about nutrition, exercise and behavioral habits, and they combine that knowledge with a mandatory healthy diet and active lifestyle, they succeed.

Tony Sparber is the founder/owner of two New Image Camps that provide summer weight-loss program for preteens and teens: Camp Pocono Trails in Pennsylvania and Camp Vanguard in Florida. Call 800-365-0556 or visit www.newimagecamp.com.