Tackling Childhood Obesity

How do you help your children lead an active, healthy lifestyle?

Like so many parents, I spent time this week in the company of a couple hundred 6th graders for a commencement program. It is an amazing experience to watch, listen and remember.

One of the teachers, tasked with reading the names of students who achieved special recognition during the year, announced some remarkable accomplishments including: 100% scores in math and science on state-required testing, perfect attendance and even a “friendship” award. But the one that caught my attention like never before were the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness awards.

My first thoughts were, “I am glad they still do that,” and, based on an awareness that has come to me in my current capacity; “this may be one of the most important awards.”

According to the CDC “the prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 6.5% in 1980 to 17.0% in 2006. The rate among adolescents aged 12 to 19 more than tripled, increasing from 5% to 17.6%.[1] Obesity is the result of caloric imbalance (too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed) and is mediated by genetics and health.[2] An estimated 61% of obese young people have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.[3] In addition, 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. 

Obese young people are more likely than children of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults, and therefore more at risk for associated adult health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.  Healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases.

There are also 10 key strategies to preventing youth obesity at this same website. I would encourage you to take a look.

The truth is, this was not an issue when I was 12 years old. Maybe we played more or ate differently, I really don’t know. But I do know that today this is an unwelcomed reality that demands our attention. When people ask me why Operation Kids has included this on our list of “most pressing issues,” I cite the statistics above.

It should always be mentioned on this topic, that this is not an aesthetic issue, but rather a critical health issue. I have heard it addressed from every angle. Of course our greatest concern is the health and happiness of our children; the long-term issues associated with obesity-related illness are not pleasant and we would not want anyone, especially our children, to have to deal with them. I have also heard it from an economic side; diabetes is a very expensive disease to treat and if enough American’s are or become diabetic, it could further bankrupt the health care system. If one side does not sway you, perhaps the other will.

The challenge is, how does one appropriately “lead out” on this issue? No parent wants to be told their child is overweight. The stigma attached to a statement such as that strikes at the heart of self esteem in our society. One again, the issue is not appearance, it is health and well-being.   

Another challenge in addressing the issue is the fact that the lifestyle component begins at home. Maybe the parents are not living a healthy lifestyle themselves. While I value the fact that caring educators encourage and teach our children to eat right and be healthy, the real impact comes at home where that behavior is modeled most.

This has been on my mind a lot lately, particularly as we ramp up our involvement with Ragnar Events and the Ragnar Relay Series. For five years now we have been part of their commitment to give back to the communities they run through, specifically in ways that promote health and fitness in kids.

If you have been successful at helping your children achieve an active lifestyle and healthy habits and weight, I would love to hear from you. Tips will be gladly shared with other parents who may be struggling with the issue.  


[1] Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Flegal KM. High Body Mass Index for Age Among US Children and Adolescents, 2003-2006. JAMA. 2008;299(20):2401-2405.

[2] Daniels SR, Arnett DK, Eckel RH, et al. Overweight in Children and Adolescents: Pathophysiology, Consequences, Prevention, and Treatment. Circulation. 2005;111;1999-2002.

[3] Freedman DS, Dietz WH, Srinivasan SR, Berenson GS. The relation of overweight to cardiovascular risk factors among children and adolescents: the Bogalusa Heart Study. Journal of Pediatrics 1999;103(6):1175-1182.


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Filed under Initiative: Children's Issues

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