Childhood Obesity: Any Relief for Fat in the Playground?

With school beginning just a few short weeks away – childhood obesity is one of those topics that has caught our attention.

While the news headlines are concentrating on the economy – other coverage is centering on the tripling of childhood obesity over the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008.  Nearly one in three are overweight or obese, and less than 22% of them are getting the daily, recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, according to the CDC.    Most obese children – or about 80% — will grow-up to be obese adults.

While the Beltway seems more intent on cutting health and slashing education budgets including for after school programs, food, and physical education  – the health and future of our children is in jeopardy.  I seriously wonder if it has taken the effort to consider the serious longer-term consequences of their actions on our greatest treasures – our children.  Today, one in five children face increased risks for serious obesity-related conditions, such as Type-2 Diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol.  The implications of this obesity epidemic are that today’s generation of children will likely be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.  I don’t know about you – but to me that’s scary!

The unintended consequences of ignoring the obesity epidemic or cheap jabs by politicos about ‘food police’ in schools – will actually contribute to rising healthcare costs.  Obesity accounts for nearly 10% of U.S. healthcare spending – or about $147 billion annually – and healthcare costs are 42% higher for someone who is obese.

Food Input + Activity Output = Obesity

The cause of the increase in overweight among children and adolescents is straightforward: an excess of caloric intake compared with caloric expenditure.

Let’s start with food.  There’s been a trend towards loading up on trans fats; foods, which are high in saturated fats; sugar and sugary soda.  Eating fast food is ‘in’ and so is a lack of balance on school cafeteria menus – often the only place where a child might have the opportunity to eat a warm and nutritious meal.

While exploring the childhood obesity epidemic – I was drawn to the experiences of Jamie Oliver, the renowned TV chef.  In 2009, he took his U.S. School Lunch Project to Huntington, Virginia, which at that time was listed as the least healthy city in the least healthy state in the U.S., according to the CDC. It was widely reported that within less than an hour after he swaggered into this town, he was reduced to tears as hostile locals told him to lay off their nuggets, processed foods, pizza and chocolate milkshakes.

Fast forward six months later: 6 year-olds could distinguish between tomatoes and potatoes, and the public schools have made permanent many of the celebrity chef’s recommendations.  While challenges remain and there are bumps in the road he was a catalyst for healthier eating habits in the broader Huntington community.  Healthy eating awareness spurred investors to open a grocery store in the once-down-and-out city center; advocates formed a state food council; and residents packed a new restaurant, Huntington Prime that cooks with local ingredients.

His experiences in Huntington aired in 2010 on his successful ABC-TV show ‘Food Revolution.’  He leveraged his fame and TV platform beyond just entertainment.   Through his Food Revolution Campaign and the Jamie Oliver Foundation, he’s on a mission to raise awareness of the growing obesity epidemic while also empowering, educating and engaging as many people as possible to love and enjoy good food. This means learning how to cook, understanding where food comes from, and recognizing the power it can have on one’s health.

In recent years, the fast food chains are starting to get the message.  Another hopeful sign is the impact of Michelle Obama.  She planted an organic garden at the White House, and has made spreading the word about healthy eating a priority along with her initiative, Let’s Move, aimed at fighting childhood obesity.

Changing Lifestyles: Play

If conquering obesity is about inputs and outputs – then the changes in children’s lifestyle over the past two decades is central.  Physical education classes in schools are being hacked or axed.  Have you ever met a first or second grader that could sit still?  Or, what about the benefits to teenagers that use sports to ‘let off steam’ – or learn team-building skills by being on a softball team or as a way to make new friends?  At home, this lack of physical activity is not much better.  After school, kids are glued to the TV, a computer or to explosively popular videogames.  What ever happened to going outside, running around or tossing some balls?

Fast forward to this summer. I came across some interesting findings about childhood obesity by Bruce Bailey and Kyle McInnis in the July 7, 2011 edition of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

This study found that children can actually burn calories and positively affect their various body mass indexes (BMI) by playing motion-based games for Nintendo’s Wii, Sony’s Playstation with Move and Microsoft’s Xbox with Kinect.

This study conducted on middle school kids found that certain video games – the ones that make players move around – i.e. exergames — has the potential to increase physical activity and consequently their energy expenditure, ergo burning calories.  To measure its findings it used treadmill walking — as well as six forms of exergames including three games which were designed for commercial use by facilities like fitness centers and three that are popular at-hone video games: Dance Dance Revolution, LightSpace: Bug Invasion,Nintendo Wii: Boxing, Cybex Trazer: Goalie Wars, Sportwall,and Xavix: J-Mat.  An interesting finding was that children with higher BMIs enjoyed the games even more than the kids with average BMIs.  Perhaps these overweight kids found a fun way to use their bodies without being embarrassed or teased by their peers.

Hello parents, appliance makers, food purveyors and video game developers!  Are there new markets emerging for fun cooking appliances and innovative active games that can be used to promote enjoyment of physical fitness activity and give kids a workout?  Are developers up to the challenge – and will parents buy? Through diet, activity and family involvement it’s up to all of us to excite our children about making healthier lifestyle choices and reverse the health crisis that is affecting this generation.

Stay tuned. 


More information:

Jamie Oliver:

C4 Trends in CE Vision Magazine

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine

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