Physical Activity and Childhood Obesity

By Michael Carrera, MSc. and Natasha Vani, MSc., ATCP

The main concern associated with obesity in children was once low self-esteem, and perhaps even social discrimination, through teasing and ridicule. But with rates of childhood obesity skyrocketing, it has now progressed from being a condition associated with a negative psychological stigma, to a condition so common and dangerous to our health that it is now identified as a disease in itself.

It is proven that an obese child has a 70% chance of becoming an obese adolescent who then has a 70% chance of remaining obese into adulthood. It is also well known that obesity is a precursor to many cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol, inactivity and high blood pressure. Obesity is also linked to type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, depression and various forms of cancer.

You can blame genetics and you can blame the food industry, but while these factors definitely do contribute to the obesity problem, are they really the main culprits responsible for this epidemic? Genetics have always been passed from one generation to the next in the same manner, and the fast-paced lifestyle which leads us to consume vending machine options, low quality cafeteria foods and our favorite fast-food alternatives has been relatively constant in the past 10 to 15 years. So what is the major reason that childhood obesity has tripled in the past two decades, increased by almost 5% in the past five years alone, now stands at roughly 20% of the child population and is almost considered a norm in classrooms instead of an uncommon characteristic?

The answer lies in the simple equation that equalizes obesity to the concept of expending fewer calories in a day than you consume. If the latter part of this equation remains relatively constant, it is safe to reason that the problem is more closely related to an insufficient daily caloric expenditure. In simple terms, the major factor contributing to today's obesity rates in children (and adults) is simply the fact that we are less active than ever before.

In schools, physical activity classes have been partially or completely cut to save money and to satisfy federal wishes to focus on mathematics and English literacy.
vOnly 10% of kids walk to school on a regular basis and only half are enrolled in some type of physical activity class. In the U.S., Illinois is the only state that actually requires daily physical education classes for all class levels. By the time students are in high school, a phys. ed. class may only be required in one of the four years. In 1991, 42% of high school students enrolled in daily physical education classes. This number has now dropped to roughly 25%.

Studies have shown that less than 40% of children participate in any type of organized activity session outside of school hours, and 23% participate in absolutely no physical activity at all.

One-quarter of all high school students watch four or more hours of television a day, and increased television watching has been linked to a more sedentary lifestyle and an increased prevalence of obesity.

It has been proven that a child watching 21 hours of television a week, which is now quite normal, can decrease their chance of becoming obese by one-third by simply reducing their television watching by the same amount.

Consider the hours a child spends watching television. Add the time they spend on the internet or playing video games, the time a child sits on a bus or a in car on their way to school and, of course, the eight-hour school day. Are we really surprised that children are becoming obese?

When our way of life leads us to be completely inactive without making diet modifications to accommodate this lessened caloric expenditure, obesity unfortunately becomes an inevitable event.

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