Fighting childhood obesity: Strategies for success

Getting your kids out of the house and onto their bikes is a great way for them to get some exercise and have fun.
It's not surprising that the number of American children considered overweight is increasing. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that more than 30 percent of children are considered overweight with two-thirds of those being obese.

Moreover, rates of Type 2 or adult onset diabetes are up 10-fold in just two decades, and current trends suggest that life expectancy for today's youth will decrease nearly five years. The reasons for these trends are complex.

While there has been degradation of youth fitness and health, due in part to school budgetary cuts, dietary changes over the past 50 years also weigh heavily on this issue. For example, children have moved from drinking three glasses of milk and one soft drink (e.g., cola) a day to drinking three soft drinks and one glass of milk instead.

Furthermore, a recent study at Children's Hospital-Boston has made a direct link between sugar-sweetened soft drinks and obesity, and indicated that teens who drink one 12-ounce sugar-sweetened drink a day can gain one pound over three to four weeks. More important, though, was the finding that if sugar-sweetened drinks aren't available, teens won't drink them as readily.

The study's lead author, Dr. David Ludwig, indicates that "sugar-sweetened beverages are playing a uniquely adverse role in promoting weight gain, especially in children." He also suggests that tackling the childhood obesity issue means re-evaluating the structure of school lunch programs, physical education and after school activity opportunities. In addition, we must expand our vision back to the family and work to reinstate family meals.

The issue of obesity is far more complicated, encompassing urban development, our perceptions of safety and our individual lifestyle choices. For example, statistics show that while the number of children who live just one to two miles from their school has remained stable over the past 30 years, the percentage of youth walking or cycling to school has dropped from 49 percent to just 18 percent; when considering those who walked or biked from any distance, the drop is over 60 percent.

Misconceived barriers to activity

Part of the weight gain in children has been attributed to increased use of cars and buses to and from school, with nearly half of all children traveling via automobile. As indicated earlier, however, this trend seems unrelated to distance. Certainly weather can account for the reduction in active transport, but not on fair-weather days.

Many parents fear for the safety of their children walking to school and playing outside alone, but data indicates that the rates of violent crimes against children have decreased over the past 30 years. Additionally, rates of injury and death among children aged 14 and under have decreased substantially since the mid-80s.

Still, we're dealing with perception; if parents perceive a danger then it's justifiable. Nevertheless, the first step to getting kids in shape is getting them outdoors.

Strategies for success

The idea that kids are little adults and that they should engage in a serious structured exercise regimen is unwarranted. The main objective should be to restore our attachment to the outdoors by parking the car and riding and walking whenever possible.

Strategies can include more green space -- open areas of grass and trees, like parks; changes in roadway engineering to allow for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers to share the space; a community that believes and supports such changes and officials willing to enforce laws protect children and adults using those areas. If this all sounds too good to be true, it's not, and it's closer than you think.

Safe routes to school

Founded in Odense, Denmark, the Safe Routes to School Program (SR2S) made its U.S. debut in 2000 with two pilot programs; one in California and the other in Arlington, MA. The huge success of these programs spawned similar efforts around the country.

Additionally, the Walking School Bus, a popular program that encourages parent-supervised children to walk in groups to school from satellite locations. The Walking School Bus not only gets parents and kids active, but also helps improve air quality around schools by diverting traffic to more distant drop-off locations thereby reducing traffic and minimizing exhaust fumes around schools.

Fitness fun and sun

The advent of these new initiatives is great, but many parents want to know what to do with their kids this summer. Getting kids active and in shape starts with encouragement and includes plenty of fun. Take advantage of everything your area has to offer, like beaches and bike paths, but also by playing kickball, tag and skateboarding. All these activities are excellent ways to get fit and burn calories.

Be part of the solution and plan a day hike, neighborhood walk, or park a few miles from the beach and ride in. All these are great ways to add activity to your day. However, don't forget about safety and wear a helmet while cycling and skating.

While kids engaging in heavy exercise may benefit from consuming a sports drink, like Gatorade, most will do just fine with water and a light snack. For those looking for a low-cost option in place of Gatorade, any commercial 'Kool-Aid' drink or sugar-free flavored water, with a pinch of salt added, will work fine.

It's also important to keep in mind that both children and adolescents, like the elderly, don't regulate body temperature as well as adults. Moreover, a child's body surface area is actually proportionally larger than an adult's and therefore they gain heat more easily, but don't dissipate the heat as effectively. The main thing is to keep them drinking on hot days and make sure they take a break.

With a little planning, parents can turn this summer into a pathway to better health habits for the whole family!

Chris Harnish has been coaching for more than 10 years and holds a master's in exercise physiology from the University of South Carolina. His business, Tradewind Sports, is dedicated to bringing professional level coaching to athletes of all levels. He has run top national caliber junior teams, worked with World's team members and currently works with professional and elite athletes nationwide. Harnish is a category 1 cyclist and former regional speed skating champion. He can be reached at

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