Fit for their future: making sense of childhood obesity

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I have a picky toddler at home, and meal time is great fun. Anything she doesn’t like (which is most everything) ends up on floor, and I don’t have a dog—which means I’m on my hands and knees every night, picking up bits of carrot and chicken and attempting to de-stickify my floor.

I can see how easy it would be simply to give up and give her what she’ll eat. And with convenience foods artificially engineered to taste fabulous, I’m sure she would love high fructose corn syrup-laden fruit snacks or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts conveniently already cut off.

Physical fitness is another challenge – when she wants to go outside while I’m trying to organize a healthy grocery list or attempting to cook her some broccoli, it would be easier to sit her in front of an Elmo DVD.

But that wouldn’t be a good choice.

In this day and age, it’s not easy to keep our kids eating healthfully and staying active. Our society is set up so that physical fitness no longer happens naturally. With the exception of people who live in a dense urban environment, we have to drive everywhere. And with most of us working desk jobs and living our lives at a frenzied pace, it’s hard to keep ourselves eating healthy and getting exercise—let alone making sure our kids do too.

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In our country (and, as it turns out, most developed countries) unhealthy lifestyles are the norm. The most terrifying part of our lifestyle is what it is doing to our children; they are starting out their lives with precursors to horrible diseases that were, until recently, only a problem for older adults. Type 2 diabetes, which was once virtually unheard of in adolescence, now accounts for as many as half of all new diabetes diagnoses in some populations.

A recent study suggests that the tide may be turning on childhood obesity, at least in one area of our country…unfortunately, this improvement is only for children with private insurance (that is, children from higher income families). Why?

Experts theorize that the families of lower-income children are less able to provide healthful meals, and that they may not have access to the same physical activities that their wealthier counterparts do. With soccer classes for a second grader priced nearly $200 for a 3 month session (plus the cost of a uniform and gear) in the Bay Area, that’s not hard to believe.

As Jeffrey Martin, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at WayneStateUniversity’s Collegeof Education, succinctly put it, “underserved children, such as minority children living in low-income households, do not engage in enough physical activity either in or out of school and often lack fitness compared to Caucasian children.” To find out why, Martin tested social and physical environmental factors. “Examining the school environment is a particularly important consideration in underserved communities, because often children have limited equipment, and their play areas are unsafe or in poor condition,” Martin said.

How you can help end childhood obesity

If we are to end childhood obesity, we must focus on helping children of all socio-economic backgrounds. Donating to organizations that promote safe play is a great way to start. Check out these three great organizations:

Playworks is a national nonprofit organization that supports learning by providing safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to schools at recess and throughout the entire school day. They also provides full training and technical assistance to schools, districts and organizations that wish to include healthy play as part of a positive learning environment.

InfinityNow is a Washington, DC based nonprofit that takes a holistic approach to wellness. This means getting healthy isn’t just about exercise or eating right—it’s about the way you look at life. They target disadvantaged elementary school students in the DC area to teach healthy behaviors and develop life skills.

World Fit seeks to curtail the epidemic of childhood obesity and create a “culture of fitness” with kids’ fitness programs and obesity programs for middle school students. Olympians and Paralympians “adopt” schools to mentor and teach the importance of lifelong fitness and the Olympic values of perseverance, respect, and fair play.

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– Sara Olsher, Marketing Manager

Rock, Paper, Success

“We’re like WD-40 for enhancing school climate. We come in, we make things go a little easier, and it makes it that much easier for teachers to be really good at their jobs.”
Playworks founder Jill Vialet, ABC News Nightline, May 10, 2010

There’s anticipation in the air. The neighborhood kids sense it coming. It’s back-to-school time, and judging from the commercials running now, there’s no way to avoid it. But the schools that kids are going back to aren’t like the ones I remember.

Today’s kids spend more of their time in a classroom and less time playing—12 hours less per week in free time since the 1970s—according to a recent study. With the advent of No Child Left Behind, even the time spent in the classroom is much less playful than it used to be, as schools focus more closely on testing requirements. Our kids aren’t learning how to play, and, as research shows, it’s affecting their ability to learn.

Enter Playworks.

Changing the Culture of Education

Playworks is one of my favorite big new ideas in education. The team at Playworks brings safe, healthy and inclusive recess to schools. Their coaches provide full-time, on-site program coordination to 170 schools in 10 cities across the nation. That’s more than 70,000 students at low-income, urban schools who have a chance to engage in play every school day.

ABC News: Click here to see a video of the man who rehabilitated children at recess through 'rock-paper-scissors'

What makes Playworks so great is that they help kids create their own games and solve their own problems using such tools as Rock, Paper, Scissors. Kids who participate in unsupervised play are able to explore their imaginations, connect with other people, and grow physically, emotionally and socially. Quality recess and play help children return to the classroom more focused and ready to learn.

As I think about kids heading back to school, quality recess and educational outcomes are something I can get behind. If it’s something you’d like to support, donate now to Playworks. Visit the JustGive Guide for other organizations providing quality education enrichment programs. Or search by zip code to find and give to your schools in your area.

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