Ever wonder where kids get so much energy? Today’s typical 5-year-old eats nearly 600,000 calories each year—that’s a lot of fuel for a small body. These vast reserves of energy come in handy for freeze games and neighborhood bike races. But many children barely tap into their supply. It doesn’t take a lot of calories to watch Power Rangers, sort Pokemon cards, or play Crash Bandicoot on Nintendo. In other words, it doesn’t take a lot of calories to be a kid anymore.
Too much energy consumed, not enough burned. Regardless of age, this scenario adds up to a possible weight problem. Children need to exercise at least an hour a day, according to the latest guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control. They should spend at least one hour a day in moderately intense activities, such as walking, swimming, or bicycling. But many don’t.
Obesity used to be an adult disease, but kids are catching up fast. The prevalence of obesity among American children has tripled since the 1980s, closely mirroring the ongoing epidemic in adults.
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Naturally, Happy Meals and Cocoa Crisps have played a major role in the wave of childhood obesity. But the real culprit appears to be a cultural change, a new way of life that encourages children to lie as still as possible, according to former US Surgeon General David Satcher, who blamed childhood obesity on a lack of exercise and an unbalanced diet.
“This is probably the most sedentary generation of people in the history of the world,” Satcher said.
Melinda S. Sothern, PhD, an exercise physiologist and director of the Pediatric Obesity Clinical Research Section at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, agrees. Sothern is the lead author of trim childrena book that helps parents raise healthy, active children in unhealthy times.
According to the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) guidelines, children between the ages of 5 and 12 need at least one hour of moderately vigorous exercise per day. These days, only 20 to 40 percent of American kids get that much.
Sothern has been working with overweight children for 15 years, giving you first-hand insight into the dramatic decline in physical activity among young people. For one thing, kids today waste too much time staring at screens, she says. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American child spends more than five hours a day, or nearly 40 percent of their waking hours, watching television, playing video games, or sitting in front of a computer.
But home entertainment is only part of the problem. “Our school system must bear some of the blame,” Satcher said. School districts across the country are cutting physical education programs, depriving many children of their most reliable source of exercise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of high school students taking daily physical education classes decreased 12 percent between 1991 and 2007. Currently, only two states (Illinois and Massachusetts) require daily physical education classes. physical for all children in kindergarten. through 12th grade. (But even in those states, schools allow exemptions.)
As elementary schools try to fit in more academic instruction each day, recess is becoming a luxury. “A lot of kids have a few minutes after lunch and that’s it,” says Sothern. In many ways, the disappearance of recess is even more worrisome than the cuts in physical education programs, she says. Recess gives kids a chance to burn off energy in their own way, and games of four square or catch are often more physically demanding than gym class activities.
Many parents and teachers have already tried to bring exercise back into children’s lives, but others remain unaware of the problem, says Judy Young, PhD, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. “A lot of people think that young children are naturally active,” she says. “If anything, they focus on making the kids calm down.”
But childhood inactivity and obesity are not to be taken lightly. Eighty percent of obese children ages 10 to 14 are likely to become obese adults. Overweight and sedentary children are also vulnerable to “grown-up” diseases, such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. A study in The Lancet found that severely obese children already had stiff arteries, which could make them vulnerable to atherosclerosis in adulthood.
Cuts in physical education and recess may also be fueling behavior problems in the classroom, says Young. Many children would be more attentive and successful in the classroom if they could let off steam on the playground, she says.
All parents should encourage their children to be active, whether they have weight problems or not, Sothern says. She herself is pushing for more recess time at her 9-year-old son’s school, something the federal government approves. The federal government has recommended that all communities provide quality physical education classes for all grades, “preferably every day,” and hire physical education specialists to teach them.
Of course, speaking at community and PTA meetings is just one step in the right direction. Parents also need to get their kids moving at home, Sothern says. You don’t need to throw away the TV or invest in any fancy equipment. You just need to create an atmosphere in which it is easy to be active.
For starters, parents should take advantage of their children’s love of the game. “Put down a soft mat in the den, store some sports equipment in the backyard, put out a box of dress-up clothes in the game room, anything to get them away from the TV,” she says.
Parents should join in whenever possible, she says. You can take your kids for walks or nature walks, play soccer, ride bikes together, or do whatever else sounds like fun. Parents will not only improve their own health, but also set a good example.
Children who are already overweight may need a more structured exercise routine. Unfortunately, several barriers stand in his way. For one thing, exercise can make them feel self-conscious. But more importantly, it can cause extreme discomfort and physical pain.
Overweight kids have a much lower “exercise tolerance” than other kids, Sothern says. After five minutes of strenuous exercise, about the time most kids start to get out of breath, burly kids may be hitting the wall. Their faces turn red, their breathing becomes extremely rapid, and lactic acid builds up in their muscles, causing severe pain. And all too often, there is an adult standing behind them, urging them to keep up with the others. “Coaches and parents often perceive physical difficulties as laziness,” says Sothern.
Overweight children should keep exercise slow and steady, especially at first. Sothern found that by combining moderate exercise with sensible eating patterns, most overweight children can reach a healthy weight within six to 12 months. Up to 70 percent of kids who enroll in her weight-loss program reach their long-term goals, she says.
Southern’s book trim children provides detailed examples of exercise programs appropriate for children of all sizes. Extremely obese children, for example, can swim slowly or ride a stationary bike (with resistance reduced to zero) for 20 minutes twice a week. These activities will help them lose weight while taking care of their joints. Kids who are only slightly overweight can try brisk walking, rollerblading, martial arts, or other weight-bearing exercises for 20 to 35 minutes three times a week. Over time, workouts can become longer and more intense.
Of course, parents don’t have to do it alone. Pediatricians can help them establish an exercise and weight loss program, perhaps with the help of a dietitian or exercise physiologist.
When is the right time to call the doctor? Parents shouldn’t worry too much about chubby toddlers, unless they seem lethargic or have an insatiable appetite, Sothern says. An overweight preschooler shouldn’t cause much alarm either, assuming neither parent has a weight problem. But if there’s a family history of obesity, it’s a good idea to ask a pediatrician for advice. If a child is still overweight at age 5, parents shouldn’t expect them to “outgrow it,” she says. At this point, it’s definitely time to do something.
Weight is a touchy subject at any age. Many parents are hesitant to mention it, even as their children become increasingly unhappy and unhealthy. But the benefits of losing weight far outweigh the discomfort of talking about it, Sothern says. Children want to play, they want to run, and they want to stay healthy. And one of the first things they need is a nudge in the right direction: away from the television and out the door.
American Academy of Family Physicians
Obesity and children: how to help your child lose weight
Interview with Judy Young, PhD, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education; and Melinda S. Sothern, author of trim children.
Sothern, Melinda S., T. Kristian Von Almen, and Heidi Schumacher. trim children. Harper Resources.
Southern, MS. Exercise as a modality in the treatment of childhood obesity. Pediatric Clinics of North America; 48(4): 995-1015.
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