A Way to Healthier Kids

Not a week goes by without the issue of childhood obesity making headline news. This should come as no surprise. Since 1980, the percentage of children who are overweight has more than doubled, and the rates among adolescents have more than tripled. The causes are many, ranging from a lack of exercise, poor dietary choices, and regular stops at the fast food restaurant, to changes in the way we live, work, and go to school.

Turn the clock back to our parents’ generation. Dad worked, mom stayed home and took care of the family. The food was fresh, picked from the garden with the help of the kids — no fillers, no preservatives. Walking was considered a normal mode of transportation.

Fast-forward 50 years to a time many of us fondly (or not so fondly) remember. There was color TV, but it didn’t fill our every waking hour. As young children, we spent a lot of time outdoors — riding bikes, playing tag, or exploring the woods near home. Many of us walked to our neighborhood school. At school, we spent a regular part of our day participating in physical activities. On the playground, it was Red Rover, dodge ball or jump rope. In gym, it was basketball, calisthenics, or the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge — sit-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, throwing a softball, or the 50-yard dash. For lunch, it was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a cookie from home, along with a glass of milk.

Somewhere between my generation and that of my kids, things changed. Most moms find themselves having to work outside the home. The closest many kids get to a garden is the produce aisle at the grocery store. The most popular activity consists of sitting in front of the TV, surfing the web, or playing video games. Many schools replaced recess with academics in order to perform better on standardized tests. The President’s Physical Fitness Challenge became a thing of the past. Walking to schools was no longer an option. For younger children, being bussed or dropped off by a parent has become the norm. For older students, driving their own car is not uncommon. The standard fare for school lunch mirrors the fast food kids eat at home &mdash high-salt, high-fat hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and fries. Soft drinks and sugary snacks fill the vending machines. It’s no wonder our kids gained weight!

Obesity not only has an impact on the health of our children, it has an educational and financial impact on our schools. Many studies have shown a link between nutrition and a child’s ability to learn. Health problems caused by obesity lead to increased absenteeism. Kids who do poorly, need costly special services. It’s a downward spiral that must be stopped, and schools have come to the realization that they can, and must, play a role in reversing this national trend. Our kids can learn about good nutrition, develop healthful eating habits, and participate in physical activity, unstructured play, and physical education &mdash all at school.

School playgrounds and athletic facilities are the perfect place for physical activity and unstructured play, but only if they are unlocked and accessible. A recent RAND Corporation study analyzed data from a national research study called the“Trial of Activity for Adolescent Girls.” According to Molly Smith, lead author of the study for RAND, girls who lived near locked schools tended to be heavier. Neighborhoods with locked schools were disproportionately poor, had larger minority populations, and were often lacking public parks and safe places for physical activity. Making the school playground accessible wouldn’t require the construction of new places, just a change in policy.

Traditional physical education classes were always about team sports, competition, and skill, rather than about individual performance and improvement. For the athletic student this worked, for most students this didn’t. What we see now is a move toward activities with a broader appeal. Schools are taking advantage of kid’s fascination with video games to increase physical activity. Programs like Dance Dance Revolution, which requires players to dance in time to the rhythm of a song, are becoming a regular part of the physical education curriculum in many states. Studies have found significant health benefits for overweight children who play the game regularly. It’s inexpensive, it’s improves health, kids don’t have to be athletes to benefit, and it’s fun! Add better eating habits to this increased activity and we are on our way to healthier.