Fat chance, or run for your life

obese child

My kids are at risk. Maybe yours are, too.

Obesity can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems including osteoarthritis and all kinds of cancers. It’s also associated with many social and psychological ills — low self-esteem and depression among them.

It’s horrible our kids could be prey to all this, but a third of them are. Over the past three decades obesity in American kids and teens has tripled, slightly more per the Centers for Disease Control, slightly less according to the American Medical Association. Obesity has gone up from 7 percent to 20 percent in the past 30 years in the age 6-to-11-year-old population, and 5 percent to 18 percent for teens, says the CDC.

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For as young as ages 2 to 5, there is a 17 percent obesity rate in New York State (between 85 and 95 percentile Body Mass Index for age), and 14.5 percent that are obese (over 95 percentile BMI).

In most cases being fat as a child means you will be fat as an adult, with the accompanying risks of all those aforementioned awful diseases.

To try to fix things it helps to find the cause of what went wrong in the first place. Why there are so many big kids out there these days is not just a simple matter of too many calories and not enough exercise; there are many, many aspects of our modern society that contribute to this epidemic. A key player is advertising that glamorizes processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods. Cutbacks in school sports and other after-school programs haven’t helped. Technology, with all of us plugged in all the time to one device or another, is a huge factor, too. And yes, sometimes it is, at least in part, “glandular” or genetic. But I know a few really large children with slim, fit parents.

The bottom line is that kids are just not getting the hour a day of physical activity, whether walking or running somewhere, sports, games, anything. While adults need a half-hour a day of moving to be healthy, kids who are growing and developing muscles, bones, brain cells and blood vessels need a full 60 minutes of active play or movement of some kind to grow up healthy.

For most of us, but especially for the younger ones, activities need to be fun and enjoyable besides just “good for you.” That something is healthy is not enough of a motivator for kids to eat that broccoli or ride that bike. There has to be pleasure in it or it will be a chore, gotten out of wherever possible. That bike ride has to appeal more than that fast-action Wii game, at least some of the time.

Eight-to-18-year-olds are spending seven and a half hours a day plugged in: music players, video games, TV shows and movies, on the computer or chatting via phone, text or social media.

But there are some things to try. Preschoolers love TV. The “electronic babysitter” can entertain them while a caregiver makes dinner or does some needed chore. Heaven knows it helped me meet work deadlines when my kids were little, a few more times than I’d care to count. But the more TV a tot watches, the less likely he or she is to exercise down the road, so it helps if you limit TV. You can get him or her to help cook or clean, supervised of course, or keep some activities like puzzles and toys out of normal circulation and just bring them out as distraction from the fact that you’ve turned off the TV but are still busy. If you’re in the habit of having the TV on 24/7 as background noise, try to wean yourself off it with the radio, either terrestrial or web-based.

If you aren’t normally active yourself, it’s tricky to motivate a kid to get up off the couch and do something. You can set an example by getting out more, walking, playing sports, and being on the move doing fun things that interest you. If you can get your kid to do things with you, you can try family bike rides or hikes or skating (invite a friend or two for more fun), ball games or Frisbee in the park or back yard, even goofy dance contests during TV commercials. Sign them up for sports or hip-hop or horseback riding lessons if you can. Gear the activity to the personality of the kid. One of mine loves team sports; the other hates them. When friends come over, encourage outdoor play, the more the merrier. Limit screen time, reducing it gradually to be less painful.

A child that is very big is especially hard to motivate, because they may get teased if seen exercising in public, and the weight can make it harder to move freely. Because kids pick on other kids, being overweight is an obvious easy target. You can try giving them a simple, not too challenging exercise, like biking, walking or swimming, and make workout sessions short rather than exhausting in the beginning, so they stay more fun than unpleasant. If you have a dog, taking them for a walk is a great way to move without looking like you’re “exercising.”

Find video games that encourage activity and movement of muscles other than fingers and thumbs. Look into geo-caching, a scavenger hunt that gets you out there.

Exercise also blows off steam and decreases mental stress. Growing up isn’t easy at all, and kids need that exercise for healthy minds as well as healthy bodies. An overweight kid is more stressed because they’re big, from the teasing by other kids, from the difficulty of moving, from the low-self esteem of being less attractive. It can be a vicious cycle of negative thoughts.

I should have been a little fattie, based on the quantity of what I ate as a kid. I’d eat five helpings of my mom’s killer mac and cheese, devoured heaping platters at holidays and buffets, and gulped down tall glasses of full-fat milk. Desserts and bread weren’t on the table much, and although there was lots of meat, there were also lots of vegetables from my dad’s organic garden. There were lots of cookies, though, commercial and homemade, and if I’d been less active I would have been chubby then instead of waiting until I got older!

Now that kids are less active they have to eat less food and try to stay away from the high sugar, high fat, processed stuff. These days we eat 31 percent more calories than we did back them then, 56 percent more fat and 14 percent more sugar. Beverages are much bigger. Fast food and processed commercial food are much fattier and higher in chemicals and sodium.

Kids need more calcium for growing bones and teeth, in the form of dairy products — yogurt, cheese, milk — and leafy greens. They need protein in the form of legumes and lean meats, also eggs and cheese. They need vegetables and fruits full of fiber, vitamins and minerals, nuts, berries, bell peppers, tomatoes, spinach, carrots and squash. Dried fruit provides iron.

It’s never easy. But I figure every time you take them roller-skating instead of watching a movie at home or get them to eat a salad instead of frozen fries, it’s better than never at all.

And it’s not all up to us parents. Everyone is responsible for the health of our future adult citizens. Schools need to support healthy eating and activities, setting good examples in the classroom, cafeteria and playground. Schools need to educate kids about how to eat right and move more, and many do. Sometimes it’s their budgets that legislate what programs they are able to offer, and for that it’s also up to our school boards and politicians and government on every level to prioritize healthy kids.

In New York there are some initiatives to help, like the Obesity Prevention Program (OPP), in collaboration with the Diabetes Prevention and Control Program-funded “Creating Healthy Places” And New York’s Department of Health, Division of Nutrition’s “Eat Well Play Hard.” The latter trains staff, kids and parents in 210 child care centers, serving at least 50 percent of children from Food Stamp eligible households. Healthy Schools NY also has programs for low-income children.

Further afield, there is the social networking website PreventObesity.net, and in 2010 first lady Michelle Obama created “Let’s Move!: America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids.” See the website at www.letsmove.gov.

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