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Fighting Childhood Obesity

  What would you say is the top health concern for American kids in 2009? Drug abuse? Internet safety? Bullying? Autism? These issues are certainly of concern, but according to a national poll on children’s health conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, parents said it is childhood obesity that tops their list.

The Obesity Epidemic
   Look around any schoolyard and you’ll see that the physical appearance of kids has changed since you were in school. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has found that the obesity rate among ages 6-11 has more than doubled in the past 25 years, from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006. Among ages 12-19, that rate has more than tripled, from 5 to 17.6 percent. These numbers say nothing about children who are not yet obese, but are clearly overweight. No other health concern is exploding at such mind-numbing rates.

Why Rising Obesity Rates Are Such a Big Deal
   The media has done a good job of making us aware of the health risks associated with obesity. To recap: the Journal of Pediatrics recently found that an estimated 61 percent of obese young people have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. The U.S. Surgeon General adds that children who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem. These children are more likely to become overweight or obese adults, and are therefore more at risk for associated adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancers and osteoarthritis.

How Did Our Kids Get So Overweight?
   There’s no doubt that diets loaded with non-nutritious, high-calorie foods are at the root of kids’ weight problems. Yet the amount of daily calories consumed by our children has not increased so dramatically over the last 20 years to cause these double and triple rates. What has changed is the amount of daily activity.  This has dropped significantly and may be the true culprit in this explosive health concern.

   The National Institutes of Health recently released the results of a long-term study of more than 800 children. Researchers tracked the daily activity levels of 9-year-old participants with an accelerometer (a device worn on a belt that records movement) to see if they achieved the minimum 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They then conducted follow-up tracking with these same children at ages 11, 12 and 15.

   Do your kids get a minimum of 60 minutes of daily physical activity? If their habits mirror those of the kids in this study, they probably do — if they are between the ages of 9 to 11, when 90 percent of the participating children met the recommended level. But by age 15, only 31 percent met the recommended level on weekdays, and a shockingly low 17 percent met the recommended level on weekends.

   This means that teens are taking in more calories each day than they are expending, largely due to the electronic age in which we live. Unlike kids of past generations, our kids can socialize, play, and explore their world without getting out of bed.

The Government’s Role in this National Health Problem
   Government agencies charged with the welfare of children are aware of this crisis. The CDC has resources for school and community leaders; visit for links to related articles.

   As one who has dedicated his life to helping kids get fit, I’d love to see local governments fund more bike and pedestrian paths so families can get around without a car, and for schools to offer healthy lunch choices and more physical education and recreation time. But these solutions require money and policy changes — obstacles that take time to overcome. We can’t afford to wait. My hope for stopping childhood obesity lies in the home — your home.

What Parents Can Do in the Home
   You don’t need to pay for a personal trainer or gym membership to fight against the obesity epidemic. Just get your kids up and moving. Start today with one of the following suggestions.

• Household jobs: Give your kids exercise and get those chores done, too. Every kid can help vacuum, sweep, mow, scrub, wash the car, walk the dog, and set the table.

• Gifts: Looking for a gift that keeps on giving? Think Pogo stick, stilts, hula-hoop, Frisbee, Twister, badminton set, and fishing pole. Or choose staples like a basketball, soccer ball, football, bicycle, skates, or tennis racquet.  

• Family outings: Get everybody moving together on the weekends (when, remember, kids’ activity levels tend to drop). Visit a zoo, park, or nearby tourist attraction. Explore nature trails; the National Wildlife Federation’s website ( can help you find nature spots within 15 minutes of your home.

• Vacations: Look for places where your kids can swim or bike, hike or camp in the mountains, or raft down a river. Explore state and national parks or take a walking tour of a major city.

• Community service: Keep the family active while working toward a common goal. Plant flowers and shrubs around public buildings or parks, do litter patrol on a nearby road or in local streams, help elderly neighbors mow or rake their yards, or clean up a town park.

• Plug in: There are ways to use electronic recreation to help kids stay active. Give your kids a video camera and encourage them to make their own music videos, reality shows, or nature travelogues. Nintendo’s Wii Sports lets kids “play” tennis, baseball and golf, or bowl and box while mimicking the physical actions involved. Guitar Hero gets kids moving as they “perform.” At the very least, rent DVDs or videogames from a store within in a mile of your home so your kids can walk, skate, or bike there and back (with you at their side if they’re too young to go it alone).

Taking it to the Next Step
   If your child is already struggling with weight gain, it may be time for more proactive measures. Many children need peer support, structured programs, and professional guidance to change the habits that sabotage their weight-loss efforts. When that’s the case, consider a weight-loss camp.

   Such camps keep kids active while teaching them to understand why they are heavier and how they can change. Even in the most difficult cases, when kids learn about nutrition, exercise, and behavioral habits, and combine that knowledge with a mandatory healthy diet and lifestyle, they will succeed.

TONY SPARBER is the founder/owner of two New Image Camps: Camp Pocono Trails, PA and Camp Vanguard, FL. New Image Camps provide a comprehensive summer weight-loss program for pre-teens and teenagers. 800-365-0556 or


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