When it comes to exercise, stating the obvious is really important

If we want to fight childhood obesity, we need to get kids moving.

Sounds incredibly obvious. And that was my reaction when I first read the study just released in the journal Pediatrics—in it, the authors said that high school students were less likely to be overweight or obese if they played at least two sports during the school year, or if they walked or biked to school.  Really? Next we will show that if you study you are more likely to do better on tests—or that it’s easier to drink milk if you open the carton.

But after thinking about it for a while, I’ve decided that when it comes to exercise, stating the obvious is really important.

We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Currently a third of US kids are overweight or obese; in adults, that number is two thirds. And physical inactivity is a big part of that. Just this week, in advance of the Olympics, the Lancet released a series of articles on the effect that physical inactivity has on our health. They report that physical inactivity causes around one in ten deaths worldwide, which is about the same as smoking. Not only that, four out of five adolescents are at high risk of disease from failing to do recommended amounts of physical activity.

Four out of five. If you have an adolescent, chances are that includes your kid. Is he or she moderately active for at least an hour a day?

What the Pediatrics study does is offer a practical idea: get all high school students playing at least two sports a year. As someone who was one of those last-picked-for-kickball geeks in high school, that sounds close to impossible. But it’s actually not. It would take a culture change (we’d have to think of sports in a more inclusive way, or make them mandatory) and it would cost some money, but it could be done.

The Lancet series tells us that we need to think of physical inactivity as a public health problem—and instead of just concentrating on getting individual people moving, we need to think about getting populations of people moving. Like the elderly, or poor, or people without safe places to exercise. Or high school students. Or all kids.

Some people are more likely to be physically active than others—and among them are those that have been physically active in the past. That makes the idea of getting youth involved in sports, whether it’s in high school or earlier, an even better one—because not only does it help them be healthy now, it builds habits that can keep them healthy for the rest of their lives.

See, it’s these practical ideas that we need. One of the Lancet articles talks about interventions that have been effective, like mass media campaigns, signage encouraging people to take the stairs instead of the elevator, walking clubs, free exercise classes in public places, or closing streets to traffic once a week for people to walk and bike.  It turns out that just sprucing up streets and getting better lighting can increase activity levels by up to 50 percent.

We just aren’t getting it when it comes to obesity and physical activity, somehow. We think that our kids will grow out of their baby fat. We think that when our lives get a little simpler next month or next year, we’ll start going to the gym or start running or start that diet. Even worse, we’re starting to think that it’s normal to have a belly or be sedentary; after all, so many people around us are just like us.

We got it when it came to smoking. We created smoking bans and taxes on cigarettes and educational campaigns—and cut cigarette smoking dramatically. Now we need to do the same thing to tackle obesity and inactivity.

You don’t want your kid to smoke because you don’t want them to get sick or die. Think of inactivity the same way. So get them moving. While you’re at it, get moving yourself. Join in the effort to get everyone moving.

Lives are at stake.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Children’s Hospital Boston blog, and Vector, the Children’s Hospital Boston science and clinical innovation blog.

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  • http://twitter.com/knitsteel kskilesjewelry.biz

    or we could just eat healthy reasonable portions and enjoy a sensible amount of physical activity with our families instead of letting school sports take over our entire after-school family life.

    • DoWhatNow1956

      Right because calorie restriction and aerobic exercise have been such an effective solution for obseity.

    • http://twitter.com/frezlis Lisa Frezados

      If sports aren’t your thing tell the kids to go outside and play, ride bikes, run, have fun. There are ways to get kids to be active without organized sports. Limit tv and video games. Go for family walks in the nice weather. There are options outside of sports. Of course healthy eating is a big part of it but get them and the whole family moving is part of it also.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Reznick/100000549195050 Steven Reznick

    Developing a love of physical activity in children is the responsibility of the parents not the kids or the schools. The schools need the funding to provide the outlet and facilities for the kids to get some physical activity. They can only do this if they have the support and blessing of the students’ families which is often hard to do. Team sports are not for everyone and there are plenty of individual activities that provide an opportunity for activity to keep them moving. The real issue in my mind is the need to provide the funding to teach children how to shop for nutritious products, how to prepare the nutritious products and even how to grow the nutritious products. Optimal and sensible portion size is a concept lost on todays fast food dependent society as well. Basic health and first aide rules and guidelines are no longer taught either. Today’s youngsters certainly are unlikely to get these lessons from their parents who were never taught it in the first place. Much of this unfortunately is socioeonomic as well and is tied to all the stresses of poverty . Until we address the issues of childhood poverty and the overwhelming stresses it places on a childs ability to be successful we will continue to have this problem. The other issue is lack of oversight and regulation of food production and the constituents (like corn syrup instead of real sugar) that are now allowed to be put in our food.

  • Rob Aaron

    I agree with a lot of what you said. However, I think that the focus on inactivity takes our eyes off the target. Namely, that kids are getting fat because they are eating too much junk food, cheap and readily available, and drinking way too many soft drinks. Bottom line is that too much sugar and too much starch will make you fat. Parents need to focus on what their kids are putting in their mouths, and maybe what THEY are putting into THEIR mouths.