As someone who was called “butterball” by my second-grade classmates, I was aware of the social stigma of being one of the fattest (my mother preferred chubby) in my class. Fortunately, the pounds came off a few years after the braces and, unlike current predictions of how fat kids become fat adults, I managed to go through my adult life at a normal weight. The good and the bad news is that today, being chubby, a.k.a. fat, would no longer make me an outlier on the playground but one of the gang.
National concern is growing over the rapidly increasing number of obese in our youth population and interventions have begun, such as changing the menus of school lunches and contents of school vending machines. Unfortunately, these nutritional improvements do not extend to fast-food chains or convenience stores, so kids who have the money and mobility can buy the fattening meals, snacks, or drinks they no longer can get in school. Indeed, I’ve seen a convenience store near the subway stop for an urban high school doing a brisk business in Doritos and Cokes, the preferred breakfast of students en route to class.
Excessive calorie intake seems to be the most obvious reason behind the weight gain of the young population. I certainly can point to an endless stream of homemade sour cream coffee cakes, blueberry pies, and peanut butter cookies as the reason I waddled around when I was 7. But a steady decline in physical activity over the past couple of decades may also be a potent reason for the increase in weight we are now seeing among school children. Walking to school, running around the playground during recess, riding a bike, jumping rope, skating, sledding, and kicking or hitting a ball in your friend’s backyard may be as old-fashioned as a black-and-white movie. Where did we lose our sense of play in the great outdoors?
Today’s kids are more likely to let their thumbs run around a touch screen. Kids are bused or driven to school and are either so laden with homework, afterschool activities or jobs, that playtime seems as quaint as a landline. Even something as commonplace as after-school team sports like Little League or its newer alternative, soccer, is losing members. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported an across the board decrease in participation of team sports such as football, soccer, basketball, and baseball, and the decline was seen among both elementary school and older students.1 The reasons for this shift were not known and may be related more to the inability of schools to pay for the support staff for such activities and /or parents to spend the time and money on equipment, uniforms, and getting the kids to practice. But the effect is a drop in physical activity that is not compensated for with kids running around the neighborhood.
No one wants to go back to a time when children were sent out to work at age 8 or 9 and were thin because they spent hours at hard labor and never were fed enough. Indeed, one of the historical errors of the very popular TV show Downton Abbey is the robust health of the young servants who seem to live in the kitchen. Young girls who went into service at 13 or 14 worked 16-18 hours days doing what we would consider today to be hard manual labor and were underfed and undernourished.
When are we going to take seriously the effects of very limited opportunities for daily physical activity on the health and longevity of our young population? If, as now seems to be the case, obesity in childhood predisposes an individual to obesity throughout adulthood, can we continue to ignore the problem? Making time for daily physical activity is an obvious solution, but one whose implementation seems dubious. Where and when are kids going to be able to really exercise? Where is the child who goes to school in the inner city going to be able to play ball or where, in the sidewalk-less, heavily trafficked, no shoulder roads, can a suburban child ride a bike? Kids have to leave school when the buses come; they can’t hang around and play in the schoolyard. And the necessity to fill every hour of the school day with teaching leaves little time for leisurely recesses.
And yet, what will have the most lasting effect on our kids? Remembering the periodic table or the capitals of all of our states, or being of a healthy weight and good nutritional status? This is not to suggest that kids stop going to school so they can play soccer or go sledding. But we can’t wring our hands over the overweight status of our children and moan over the implication for their future health but then provide them with no financial support or time to keep them physically active.