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You’ve seen it on TV, read it in the paper and heard it on the radio, “Today’s children are declining in health and gaining more weight than ever before.” Childhood obesity has tripled within the last thirty years. Currently one child in four is overweight. In addition, up to 80 percent of obese youth continue this trend into becoming obese adults. Although there are many factors influencing a child’s weight, studies show that a child’s activity level has a greater effect on his or her weight than food consumption.

Children are more sedentary than ever with the widespread availability of television, videos, computers, and video games. As reported last month in the San Diego Union Tribune, by the time children reach 15 years of age, they get less than 50 percent of the recommended daily activity of 60 minutes per day. Researchers found that by age 15, physical activity had dropped to only 49 minutes per day during the week and 35 minutes on weekends.

The current epidemic of inactivity and the associated epidemic of obesity are being driven by multiple factors such as inadequate physical education (PE), lack of open space, lack of recreation facilities, allowing children to purse sedentary activities, and the lack active role models. Children’s obesity is now a major national medical concern.

Activity is the Key:

Americans spend about 60 percent of their waking time sitting. Whether it’s sitting in front of the TV, computer, or sitting in our cars, we expend very little energy these days. And don’t depend on the schools to provide your children with physical activity. According to reports, children fall short of the recommendations to have daily school physical education (PE) classes that engage them in moderate to vigorous physical activity at least one hour or more of class time. Even worse, a growing number of schools are cutting physical education classes from their curriculum.

Kids at Risk of Decreased Physical Activity:

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported that 26 percent of American children watched at least four hours of television per day, and the more children watch TV the greater their BMI (Body Mass Index) was as compared to those who watch less than two hours of television per day. The bottom line: the more children watch television, the fatter they get.

Getting kids off the couch and out playing does take some planning. Unfortunately there aren’t many open fields left in San Diego for children to run and play. During the weekends, baseball fields, football fields and other open fields are closed for organized sports and schools lock their gates after school hours. Most homeowners associations (HOAs) prohibit basketball hoops along the street or bolted above the garage doors. Skateboarding is confined to skate parks and forget about playing baseball in the street, once the ball hits a car or breaks a window — a lawsuit for sure!

Furthermore, parents concerned for their child’s safety, won’t allow them to walk or ride their bikes to the local store or parks. We’d rather have our children at home playing video games or watching TV — keeping them safe from attackers. I remember the days of my mom telling us kids not to come in until the streets lights came on. And in Washington state during the summer months, the streets lights didn’t come on until almost 10:00 p.m.

What did we do as kids? We rode our bikes all around town, played games in the forest, built forts, jump in rivers, played ball in the local fields, and climbed on the monkey bars in the school yards. Sadly, these activities aren’t available to most kids these days. Rather, we have to enroll them into organize sports if they want to play baseball, basketball or soccer. Heck, that’s why the terminology “soccer mom” was coined. No longer can our children walk to the soccer fields, moms have to chauffeur them back and forth in the minivan. Gone are the days of letting our children walk to school or to the stores. As a matter of fact, kids these days have grown up expecting to be chauffeured around.

Be a Role Model:

A child has a 79 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese if they are living with at least one obese parent, and regrettably 60 percent of adults are either overweight or obese; what kind of role model is that? As a parent, your child’s health is your responsibility, meaning, it’s your responsibility to keep your child at a healthy weight. Understandably. juggling a hectic work schedule and other family comments can make it difficult to find time for family activities, but parents need to make exercise and family activities a priority. Ditch the BlackBerry and grab the ball for some family fun of playing catch.

Promoting Physical Activity at Home :

Last year I was attending a conference on children’s health issues and one of the speakers, a pediatrician, made this statement: “When an obese child walks into my office followed by obese parents, I give up because I know the chances of this child changing his habits are next to nothing.” Treatment of childhood obesity is time-consuming, frustrating, difficult, and expensive. In fact, choosing the most effective methods for treating overweight and obesity in children is complex at best. But promoting physical health must start at home. It must start with the parents.

Litigious Society:

Sadly schools and playground have removed all of the challenging activity equipment for fear of being sued. Tall steel monkey bars have now been replaced with small plastic slides. Long teeter-totters are long gone; a child could fall three feet, hurt themselves and the parents sue. “Nanny laws,” such as the one requiring children to wear helmets when riding their bikes around the park have discourage kids from riding. Now I’m not saying that helmets are not important, I always wear my when riding on the road, but having to wear a helmet when riding around Mission Bay n come on, that’s silly. Maybe we need to quit depending on others for our child’s safety.

Age-Appropriate Activities:

About two, threes times a week I run around Lake Murray in La Mesa. I can’t tell you how many times I see parents almost forcing their children to bike or scooter around the lake on the path. What fun is that for a child? Forget about the fact that children want to explore and have fun. Don’t parents realize that children rather run down to the water’s edge and see what’s crawly or swimming in the little crooks and crannies of the lake? As adults we lose our imagination and getting around the lake and back becomes a goal; it’s exercise for us. For children, the goal of getting “exercise” shouldn’t be riding around the lake, but rather having fun while exploring new places, playing games, anything that gets their bodies moving, that should be the priority.

Infants and Toddlers:

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that children younger than 2 not watch any television. Infants and toddlers should also be allowed unstructured exploration of the outdoors while under the supervision of a responsible adult. Such activities include walking in the neighborhood, unorganized free play outdoors, and walking through a park or zoo.

Preschool-aged Children (4 to 6 Years):

Preschool-aged children should take part in unorganized play that encourages fun, exploration and experimentation. Appropriate activities might include running, swimming, tumbling, throwing, and catching. Preschoolers should also begin walking tolerable distances with family members. In addition, parents should reduce sedentary transportation by car and stroller and limited television to less than two hours per day.

Elementary School-aged Children (6 to 9 Years):

In this age group, children improve their motor skills, visual tracking, and balance by walking, dancing, jumping rope, or participation in organized sports such as soccer or baseball. However, parents should focus on enjoyment rather than competition. These children have a limited ability to learn team strategy.

Middle School-aged Children (10 to 12 Years):

Preferred physical activities that focus on enjoyment with family members and friends should be encouraged. Middle schoolnaged children are better able to process verbal instruction and integrate information from multiple sources so that participation in sporting events (football, basketball, ice hockey) is more feasible. Running events and weight training may be initiated, provided that the program is well supervised.

Adolescents:

Adolescents are highly social and influenced by their peers. Identifying activities that are of interest to the adolescent, especially those that are fun and include friends, is crucial for long-term participation. Physical activities may include dance, yoga, running, skateboarding, cycling, and competitive and noncompetitive sports.

Conclusion:

Making physical activity as fun and exciting as video games can be a difficult challenge, and physical activity needs to be accessible for the child and parent if it is to be continued. Parents need to step up and get involved too ensure an active and healthy lifestyle. We need to convince school boards that PE and other school-based physical activity opportunities are as important to long-term productivity as are academics. HOA policies should be changed, allowing for activity equipment on the sidewalks, driveways and backyards. Being more active does take more planning, but stick with it and you’ll find that your children are in better health, and you may find that you and your children enjoy it more than you thought.

—JANET LITTLE, CN

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