Economist John Kenneth Galbraith has said that more people die in this country of too much food than of too little. It's an appalling notion - but an accurate one. As of 1999 more than 60 percent of American adults were overweight or obese - and obesity among children was increasing faster than among adults. In 2000, 22 percent of U.S. preschoolers were overweight and 10 percent clinically obese.
Nevertheless, there are many who consider obesity an individual responsibility. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in December 2001, Brian Doherty ridiculed former surgeon general David Satcher's "fat war." He called on taxpayer-funded agencies to think twice about spending Americans' money to lecture us on what he considers a matter of private health. He believes obesity is a condition "caused by freely chosen behavior" and maintains people can simply cure themselves of obesity by eating less and exercising more.
Fair enough. Everyone's entitled to an opinion. But you have to wonder if Mr. Doherty has done any research on this issue - or if he's simply speaking as someone who personally has a handle on his own "love handles." If it's the latter, he's to be congratulated for his self-discipline - but rebuked for not digging a little deeper as a journalist. After all, if the majority of people in this country have a weight problem, we need to look into the reasons why. If there are now nearly twice as many overweight children and almost three times as many overweight adolescents as there were in 1980 - and it previously took 30 years for the number of overweight American children to double - we have to admit that something, somewhere, is very wrong.
Certainly, we all wish the problem would just disappear - that it wouldn't be our problem at all. Who at one time or another hasn't wished for a simple solution to the predicaments that plague us? In this case, if everyone just took personal responsibility for her or his own weight gain, we wouldn't have to spend $100 billion dealing with obesity. And there's no doubt that personal responsibility is a good thing. But David Satcher tells us this is "the most overweight, obese generation of children in our history." Exactly whose responsibility is that? Let's think about it.
Without even taking into consideration the $100,000 paid to schools by soft drink companies to fill our children's bodies with empty calories, there's still the issue of recess and physical education disappearing from the schools. Who's making the decisions to eliminate all physical activity from the school day (where children spend most of their waking hours) despite mounting evidence that children need to move - for the health of both their bodies and their minds? Not the children. Given a choice, they'd happily choose to mix some movement into the day.
There's also the matter of loading children's days with activities that preclude "exercising more." Given a choice - and the opportunity - children might well opt to spend more of their time running, jumping, and breathing hard. But they're not being allowed to "choose freely." Rather, the adults are choosing for them - the very adults who are supposed to know what's best for them and who have been entrusted with their care and protection.
Are the children responsible for the fact that 32 percent of two- to seven-year-olds - and 65 percent of eight- to eighteen-year-olds - have TVs in their bedrooms? Is it their fault they're not born with self-limiting mechanisms - and that too often parents have forgotten how to say no? If young children were able to set their own limits with regard to television viewing and computer and video use, they'd need parents only to provide food, clothing, and shelter.
The problem is, once a child is obese because of these adult-made decisions, the odds are pretty much stacked against him. Not only are behavior patterns, like eating and physical activity habits, established in childhood (educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom contended that 90 percent of an individual's habits and traits are set by age twelve), but long-term studies have also shown that excess body fat tends to persist throughout childhood and into adulthood.
And it's no wonder. Not only will "supersized" servings confront her at every turn, but also physical activity will become an even smaller part of the overweight child's life as she gets older. This is true of children in general but is even more probable for the overweight child.
Many of us have nightmarish recollections of trying to climb the rope, or being forced to run laps until overcome with nausea, during "gym class." Surely any kind of physical activity would feel equally nightmarish to an overweight child. Even if they're inclined to move, overweight children are often physically incompetent. According to an article at the website of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), during one study approximately 120 children ages three to ten were observed traversing an overhead ladder. The only children unable to cross the ladder successfully were obese. In another study it was determined that even children's walking patterns were affected by overweight, with obese children walking slower, asymmetrically, flat-footed, and with toes turned out. Over time these poor walking habits can result in structural deformities and damage to body tissue. And, of course, if even walking is a challenge, anything beyond that could be perceived as overwhelming.
Is it any surprise, then, that 40 percent of obese children and 70 percent of obese adolescents become obese adults? Indeed, by the time obese children are six years old, their chances of becoming obese adults are over 50 percent. It's a vicious-circle kind of problem. Lack of physical activity is a primary cause of excessive fat accumulation in children. Then, once overweight, children have a tendency to become even less physically active - a tendency that only increases in adolescence.
Sure, Richard Simmons started out as a "fat kid" and managed to overcome the odds, but he's devoted his entire life to it! Not many individuals are likely to hand over the better part of their lives to rid themselves of excessive fat accumulation acquired before they were even old enough to understand the problem.
But something must be done to ensure physical activity is a part of every child's life. Said Dr. Samuel Abate, at a childhood obesity conference sponsored by the North Dakota Department of Health: "The consequences of denying the body exercise are just as severe as depriving it of food, water, or oxygen; it just takes longer to see the consequences."
Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and the author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003).Rae speaks to parent and education groups throughout North America. You can visit her and read more articles at http://www.movingandlearning.com.
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