We’ve all heard it before; the obesity rates in the US are growing rapidly, but did you know just how bad it’s actually gotten? 1 out of 3 kids are now considered overweight or obese,1 which represents an increase of more than double in children and quadruple in adolescents in the past 30 years2 and almost matches the current statistic of how many American adults fall into the very same category, over one-third.3
Suggesting we’re in a crisis is an understatement. To make matters even more tragic, the youngest of the young, who cannot bear any of the responsibility, are perhaps at the greatest risk.
Researchers found humans develop their total number of fat cells in childhood.4 Once fat cells have grown in number, that number is there to stay and all we can do, short of having surgery to decrease the amount of cells, is to manipulate the size of each cell.5 So, we can deduce a person who has been overweight since childhood will have a far more difficult time trying to reach a healthy weight compared to someone who gained later in their life.
Forget about nature versus nurture; the bottom line is that if mom and dad are overweight, making poor food choices and watching TV five hours per day,6 the little ones aren’t exactly going to go to the farmer’s market or a jog around the block on their own!
The cause for this desperate state of affairs is vast; a nationwide solution is multifaceted and complex as it goes beyond simply recommending that people eat more veggies, cut out sugar and get out to exercise. We have to factor in current state of health of the parents, or lack thereof, what foods and medications they’re taking, whose nutritional advice they’re following and what comprises their physical fitness regime. Furthermore, each family needs to take it upon themselves to proactively make changes, if for no other reason than to ensure the kids have the best possible future ahead of them from a health perspective.
Getting more active as a family can be just the ticket. For some, it may be starting with going for a family hike on the weekends, and incorporating an evening walk around the neighborhood after dinner, rather than parking it on the sofa. For others, it may begin there, and naturally find its way to more competitive family workouts, with parents signing up for a 5k or half marathon and kids participating in the children’s version of racing that are often held the same day.
Unlike a training program catering to adults, kids need to be supervised during family workouts to make sure they’re safe in their fitness routines. Michael Neely, DO, the Medical Director at NY Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy,7 proposes there are some easy to follow guidelines to make sure the kids are properly engaging in physical fitness activities that won’t put them at risk.
- Because children’s skeletons are still developing, they cannot handle the stress of lifting heavy weights, and may be easily injured. Instead, focus on involving your child in strength-training exercises that utilize resistance and your child’s own body weight such as push-ups, sit-ups and light calisthenics or resistance bands. Wait until high school age to include weight training and lifting.
- Young children can also run for short stretches, but parents should exercise discretion at just how much they allow them to run. Children’s joints are particularly sensitive to repetitive stress, and too much running can easily cause injury and inhibit proper growth. A good indication is when the children reach their voluntary exhaustion.
- Until kids reach 18, they remain at risk for cartilage, tendon and bone platelet damage. Encourage kids to wait a little longer, until age 21, to take on a marathon. By then, the body has finished with the most critical phases of development and can properly sustain the stress of long-distance running.
So, how much is too much? Let the little ones run, or play until they’re tired. In doing so, you’ll not only be sure they’re keeping safe, you’re encouraging them to tune in and listen to their own body’s cues, something many an adult has to relearn.
Even if you feel you, or your family, are starting at square one and have a long way to go, it’s never too late to get started. In some cases, reflecting on the long term effect on kids of poor food choices and lack of physical activity can be just the impetus a parent needs to put their own health in check and start implementing some strategy right away.
A family that plays together stays healthy together!
 “Overweight and Obesity.” KidsHealth – the Web’s Most Visited Site about Children’s Health. Ed. Mary L. Gavin. The Nemours Foundation, 01 Oct. 2012. Web. 29 June 2015
 Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association 2014;311(8):806-814.
 “Adult Obesity Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 09 Sept. 2014. Web. 29 June 2015
 “Fat Children May Be Tied to a Lifetime of Obesity.” New Scientist. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2015
 Kolata, Gina. “Study Finds That Fat Cells Die and Are Replaced.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 May 2008. Web. 29 June 2015.
 “Average American Watches 5 Hours of TV per Day.” NY Daily News. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2015
 “Exercise for Kids: What’s Safe, What’s Not.” Exercise for Kids: What’s Safe, What’s Not. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2015