Monday, 29 April 2013

Childhood obesity

I am always baffled by those commercials that tell us our children need to get more exercise. Where little Timmy swims at the pool once a week and Mom is astonished to find out that he needs an hour of exercise each day to be healthy.

First of all, really? Are there really people out there who are unaware that children require physical activity in their daily lives in order to have a healthy lifestyle?

We all know that we as adults should be exercising a few times a week, and try to fit in those walks or runs or a couple of classes at the gym whenever we can. Have we forgotten somehow that this is not just for vanity? The point of exercise is not just to fit into that pair of skinny jeans or so we can wear the little cami without worrying about arm flap - it is for our health. An inactive lifestyle usually leads to being overweight or obese, which carries risks of very serious health problems, according to the Center for Disease Control - heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, even certain types of cancer and infertility. An active lifestyle decreases these risks - a minimum of only one hundred and fifty minutes a week for adults, according to the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, which can be broken down into bouts as short as ten minutes (that's right, walking the kids to school every morning counts!)

And kids need more exercise than we do - sixty minutes each and every day, with "screen time" (TV, computer, video games) limited to less than two hours and very little seated, sedentary time. Hanging out indoors and inactive is one obvious and easily avoidable activity, but don't forget that strapping your toddler into a stroller or carseat for hours is just as harmful. They need to be physically active for a minimum of a full hour a day to avoid the risks of obesity. Children who are overweight or obese are likely to be obese as adults - which means that they are at increased risk for all the same conditions and diseases as an overweight adult.

So when we let our kids play video games after school, then turn on the TV to keep them distracted while we make dinner, then throw on a movie before bed - even if we bring them to the arena for an hour of free skating on the weekend to burn off some energy - we are putting them at risk for heart disease and a shorter, less healthy life.

This should not be news to most people. And yet it seems to be.

Many children are not meeting their daily exercise requirements. And I don't understand how that can be.

In my experience, children are by nature very active little human beings. When I was a kid, playing meant being outside with my brother, climbing trees or riding bikes or swimming in the backyard or rollerblading through the neighbourhood. I played volleyball and baseball and ran track and cross-country. And I swam competitively from when I was six years old until the end of first year university (when things took a bit of a temporary downward spiral, healthy-lifestyle-wise). My brother played baseball his whole life, and still does as an adult. The notion of an inactive childhood is completely foreign to me. My own children are whirlwinds of activity - our days are filled with bike rides, walks, soccer at the park, and playing at the playground. Even on rainy days when we're stuck indoors it's Jedis and ninjas up and down the stairs and all over the house. And this is on top of the walks to and from school and two thirty-minute soccer-filled recesses at school every day, a family swim at the rec centre once or twice a week and their zillion or so soccer practices, baseball games, and swimming lessons each week. How can any kid possibly not get a mere sixty minutes of exercise each day? Simply by nature, kids are active.

I am completely baffled by the scale of the epidemic of childhood obesity - childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last thirty years, which makes me wonder, given children's naturally active natures: what on earth are we doing to our children?

If our kids are becoming increasingly obese as the years go by it has to somehow be our fault, as parents and as society in general. Kids inherently want to be active. They are growing and learning and filled with energy and curious about everything. Is it the preponderance of technology, the number of different video gaming systems and free online games that makes it so tempting for kids to spend hours on end parked on the couch? Is it our laziness as parents because it's so damn easy to turn on technology to entertain our kids while we get other things done? Is it the easy availability of fast food and ready-made, prepackaged, nutrient-free meals and snacks that we're buying and our kids are grabbing off the shelves out of sheer convenience?

I truly don't know.

My older kids love to play Wii. I let them. We are a very active family and I am not the least bit concerned about their activity level. But I do limit how long they can play, and how many days a week. They have a few TV shows they enjoy, and I let them watch those too. They are both very avid readers and enjoy curling up with a book. But, as I said, we are a very active family. I would guesstimate that my kids get, on average, four or five hours of higher than moderate intensity physical activity each day - often more. The boys have grown up involved in sports and coming to Mommy's work to watch and help teach exercise classes and have been taught about healthy foods and choices since they were toddlers. We are not concerned about inactivity in this household. I will admit to feeding them fast food, on occasion - maybe once a month or so. But for the most part, we eat fresh meat and produce and plan our meals according to Health Canada's Food Guide. I have spent my entire adult life working in fitness and nutrition and we follow a very healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich diet in this house - so I am not concerned about my kids' nutrition, either.

But I am deeply concerned about the alarming increase in childhood obesity in general and all that implies for the future - including the fact that for the first time in over two hundred years children are expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents thanks to obesity, which is expected to shorten average life span by as much as five years (more than cancer or heart disease!)

This is a terrifying decline in a society with so much scientific and medical knowledge and we need, as parents, to find a way to turn it around. Walk the kids to and from school. Play at the park for half an hour after school. Go for an evening walk through the neighbourhood when the weather allows. Register them for at least one sport each season. Skip the fast food restaurants, shop the outside of the store (fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and cheese, chicken and fish and beef) rather than the aisles, spend a few extra minutes planning meals for the week and preparing school lunches.

Kids playing soccer, kids in sportIf we as parents make a few minimal changes in how we feed and entertain our children we can see drastic improvements in their overall health and provide them with the tools to live long, happy, healthy lives. The alternative is too frightening to consider.

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