Guest Column - February 2005
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Childhood Obesity

Bring fun back to fitness

By Anne-Marie Spencer

America is facing a startling setback in the new millennium, a crisis of obesity in our children. Childhood obesity knows no cultural, socioeconomic or age boundaries, and in fact it can be found in every city and town across America. The irony is that, despite the steady progress we are constantly making in health advancements and treatments for children, we continue to see our youth gaining weight at an alarming rate. Almost 9 million children are overweight, triple the number of just 20 years ago.

There are a lot of mixed messages regarding children, health and the growing epidemic of childhood obesity these days. In an effort to raise academic skills, some schools are cutting back or even eliminating recess. It's not unusual to find children going the entire day without one minute of free play outdoors. They have 20 minutes to gulp down lunch, and then it's back to the classroom—where they're likely to have to sit very still to write an essay on the importance of physical activity. Ironically, kids spend an amazing amount of time studying health and doing health homework but very little time putting it into practice. Schools are on the receiving end of ever-increasing pressure to raise scores on standardized tests. Often, their funding is dependent on these scores. With no way to lengthen the school day, something has to go in order to make the time needed for additional academic studies. Often it's the things seen as "extras" like P.E. and recess.

However, many studies have shown that children are simply not as productive when they are held in class for three to four hours, given a short break for lunch and then sent back to the class for another three to four hours more of intense classroom time. Kids need a break, and studies on the topic show that they are more attentive in class when allowed periods of free time during the day. (Let's face it, aren't we all?) It doesn't matter what your job, when a project gets intense, you will find that if you get up, walk around and come back to it, you can refocus on the task at hand. It's the same for children, and even more so, considering that their metabolisms burn at a higher rate than our adult metabolisms do.

So with dwindling fitness opportunities at school, what's left? Many parks offer great places to picnic but no playgrounds. Often, large signs posted at the entrance warn "No skateboards, no bicycles." There are usually plenty of ball fields for soccer, baseball and football, which leaves kids at the local elementary school with one choice for exercise, and that is signing up for a local team sport. Not the kind of activity that many overweight kids are going to get excited about. Faced with the fear of being unable to keep up with their peers, or of being singled out, most overweight kids—the ones who will benefit the most from exercise—end up going home, fixing a snack and spending the evening in front of a screen. Today's kids have more sedentary activities than ever to choose from, including computers, video games, television and a library of home movies. Children spend at least 17 hours per week watching TV, playing video games, instant messaging with their friends and similar sedentary activities. Some say there is another link between watching excessive TV and childhood obesity because of the commercials for highly processed, fat-laden foods that can be found during children's after-school programming.