In our hurry to solve problems, we forget that the key to solving them lies at the root. This is my major lament with the poorly named youth �obesity� problem. We are not treating the cause. As I have often said, obesity is the sneeze. It is just a symptom of the larger problem of inactivity and poor nutrition. Kay Redfield Jamison, a well-known clinical psychologist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, once said, �Play is not a luxury�it�s a necessity.� This statement could not be more true. Let�s talk about why children are not playing as much anymore, how important it is and what we can do about it.

Yes, we all know that obesity and its related problems are at an all-time high in industrialized (code word for wealthy) nations. We know that we have a problem with excess. We are well aware that kids are unhealthy, and more and more of them are choosing sitting still and playing video games over movement. Great! We have identified the problem. But what is the root cause? How do we solve this problem?

 

Root Causes of Youth Obesity

I always prefer to discuss solutions, but we must first address the root causes. In this case, they are numerous. In order to prevent this from getting too �thick� and bogged down in detailed science, let�s create a conceptual list of causes here (in no particular order, as they are all important):

 

1.       The importance we attach to money � Parents have to work more because the cost of living has increased. They have less time to spend with their children, and they choose activities (and foods) that don�t require as much time.

2.       The over-dependence on cool technological advances, as if they are keys to a better life � Video games, computers, phones that text� I have all these things myself. Fortunately, I didn�t have them early in life, so I am able to keep them in perspective within the overall scope of my life. We now give these things to children at such a young age that some of them never practice movement long enough to know the joy of movement. This is because movement has already been replaced with something that buzzes, lights up and whirrs. The technology literally exploits the nervous system�s guilty pleasures: light and anything new (hence the sound bites and short attention span-oriented programming).

3.       The lack of realization that movement is important for everyone � Unfortunately, not many people realize how important efficient movement patterns are for the health of the human body. Sadly, many think that any movement is enough (regardless of quality) and that learning to move athletically is the sole realm of the competitive athlete.

4.       The shared belief (and we can probably say fact) that the world is a far less safe place � as compared to what it was 20-something years ago during my childhood. Therefore, parents are afraid to let their kids go play outside alone.

5.       The eradication and marginalization of physical education programs � I know of schools that don�t let kids run during recess. A particularly nasty part of the cause for this is the over-litigious nature of Americans. These rules come from often single lawsuits initiated by parents because a child falls and breaks his/her arm at recess. The other cause here is the lack of importance placed on musical and physical education, as if the only important thing in the educational process is learning to score higher on standardized tests.

6.       Thinking that it�s all about how much a child weighs � It is really all about a child�s daily habits and how healthy the child is. A slim child is not necessarily a healthy child. No matter what a child weighs, they need exercise.

 

Solutions to the Causes

So how do we fix this, the destruction of the physical culture? We will address some solutions for each of the six causes outlined above that your clients can follow, so that we can begin to create a blueprint together to solve this pervasive societal problem:

 

1.       If you possibly can, spend time with your children. Prepare meals ahead of time for the week, and try to eat together � If you are an employer or a corporate board, try to find ways to provide more time for your employees to spend with their families. Begin to realize that having money does not solve all of our problems. In fact, an over-importance placed on money and getting ahead can create problems. The practice of getting ahead or �keeping up with the Jones�� makes it even harder in our competitive society for other parents to spend time with their children. We all live in this world together.

2.       Get your children outside; take them to the park; enroll them in fun recreational programs � These programs don�t always have to cost a ton of money:

 

�         Look at opportunities your county/city parks and recreation or park authority may offer. Many organizations like these have inexpensive or free programs.

�         Look into free activity-based, after-school programs.

�         Push your school board to give more time for physical education.

 

3.       Let those of us with knowledge in the field of child development and athletics help you understand that the human body is a living machine � The parts of the machine will not work well if they do not move efficiently together. If the parts do not move efficiently, they will break sooner. The actual tissues in the body will become altered by lack of movement, with muscles becoming weaker and tighter. Finally, sedentary children will develop into inefficient movers and will experience nagging pains and chronic injuries for the rest of their lives, whether they are overweight or not.

4.       Work with your community organizations to make your neighborhoods safer � Let�s begin to put funding toward making communities safer by developing safe zones, like community centers. If these are not safe zones, work together as a community to make them safe zones. We must all work together to help solve our own problems.

5.       Put pressure on school boards to fund and run quality physical education programs, based on play and guided exploration, not on yelling and telling kids to �be quiet� and �do this� and �do that� � Realize also that through the natural process of play, your child may sustain a minor injury or two, just as anyone can be injured or contract a sickness at any time. We can�t let our fear become irrational and impact our children�s long-term health by keeping them still.

6.       Recognize that your child (with a few rare exceptions) will be healthy or unhealthy depending on their habits and the habits that they see family members exhibit (see solution #1) � The extreme long-term danger of making it about weight is two-fold: First, parents will look at their skinny sedentary child and say, �Well, my child isn�t overweight, so he/she isn�t unhealthy.� For those of you that are reading this and say �Parents won�t say that,� they do and they have. I have talked to at least 30 parents who have exhibited that thought process. Second, parents will wait until their child is overweight to exercise. By this time, it is incredibly difficult to learn to move because of the extra weight. Why not intervene before it happens?

 

Hopefully, this article has given us some food for thought, and we can begin to start attempting the solutions listed above. Are we ready to start winning this battle now, or will we wait until it gets worse?

Dr. Kwame M. Brown, NSCA CSCS, is an Elite Trainer and Director of Youth Athletic/Conditioning at Shula's Athletic Club (Miami Lakes, FL), where he initiated several programs for youth athletes eight to 17 years of age of all ability levels. In addition, he serves as a Performance Coach at Chris Carter's FAST Program (Coral Springs, FL), where he has worked with many professional, college and youth athletes. Dr. Brown earned a PhD (2003) from the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, Georgetown University (Washington, DC) with a concentration in spinal cord injury and sensorimotor development, and he completed his post-doctoral work at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Visit www.iyca.org for more information.

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