Modern kids are growing at an alarming rate — and not vertically. Obesity in children has become a major problem in countries like the U.S., Australia, Canada, and the UK. Obese children grow to be obese adults — increasing their risks of mortality and morbidity. The problem is a recent one. In the 1980s, less than 5 percent of children suffered from obesity. Today, the numbers have grown to more than 20 percent.
Obesity Risks in Children
Being the fat kid in school is no laughing matter. Even in childhood, obesity can have serious effects on health and development. Extra weight and high cholesterol can restrict blood flow, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Children may have minimal risk of suffering from strokes — however, childhood obesity increases the chances of suffering from strokes at a later age.
Obesity can also cause impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance. The two conditions exponentially increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Excess soft tissue contributes to breathing problems like asthma and sleep apnea. Interrupted sleep can be dangerous for kids, as it is the only time the body produces growth hormones. Untreated sleep apnea can diminish both physical and mental abilities, stunt growth, and even cause heart problems.
Aside from physical problems, obesity can also cause depression and anxiety. Obese children often experience bullying or some form of ostracism. Continued social isolation often leads to low self-esteem, as well as a more pessimistic perception of life.
Phones, Tablets, and Laptops
The spike in childhood obesity runs parallel to the popularity of cable television and video games in the 1980s. Shows targeting children ran for 24 hours a day and video games allowed children to play in the safety of their own houses. Of course, increased screen time eventually led to more sedentary lifestyles as children opted to play at home instead of going outside. The advent of smartphones and tablets made the problem worse.
Parents used these devices as a form of babysitting tool — sitting kids in front of their favorite movie or allowing them to play games for hours. More than 5 hours of screen time in children has been linked to shorter attention spans, learning problems, as well as full-on ADHD. Playing on the phone activates the reward centers on the brain, producing dopamine doses that can be addicting. The light from phones and tablets can also disrupt sleep. Most children make up for their lack of sleep through food, particularly sugary ones.
Physical Activity and Childhood Development
Children have naturally high metabolisms. No matter how much they eat, they can easily burn up calories just by playing outside. Physical activity strengthens the bones and musculature. It also enhances balance, coordination, and reaction speeds. Playing with friends is a form of social interaction. Children learn to share, work in tandem, or unite for a single goal.
Physical activity also affects children at an emotional level. It can promote feelings of well-being, acceptance, and satisfaction. Accessing and releasing the fight or flight instinct through physical activity releases stress and reduces anxiety and depression. Some studies find links between physical activity and better cognitive performance.
Encouraging Your Child to Stay Active
A healthy life often starts at home. Make your home conducive to physical activity with a swimming pool, a basketball hoop in the driveway, or even a mini-bowling setup in the basement. A home setup allows you to keep an eye on your kids while they are having fun. Encourage them to bring friends over for longer activity sessions. If they are old enough, you can sign them up for team sports like basketball, soccer, football, or baseball.
Playing with a team is a great way to motivate your kids into doing their best and exceeding their limits. If they’re too young, individual activities like karate, gymnastics, or swimming are also great options.
During the weekdays, go for walks around the block or have them walk the dog early in the morning. Jog with them if you have the time or buy them bicycles or skateboards so they can explore the neighborhood with their friends. 30 minutes of physical activity a day is enough to maintain proper weight or lose excess pounds. Schedule their activities early to get a bit of morning sun. The sunlight can reset their biological clocks, as well as promote the production of vitamin D.
Physical activity in childhood often translates to healthier lifestyles in adulthood. Spare your kids the problems, diseases, and conditions that come with obesity — by encouraging them to play sports or some other physical activity.