Image for child obesity When talk focuses on childhood obesity in the US, words like “critical” and “epidemic” are often used. The tried-and-true prescription of more exercise and better nutrition still holds true, but overweight children face unique challenges when it comes to weight loss.

Why Has Childhood Obesity Increased and What Are the Effects?

The statistics are disturbing. Not only are the overall obesity rates increasing, the heaviest kids are heavier than they were thirty years ago. Why is this happening? Experts who have studied childhood obesity attribute it to a change in lifestyle. The active lifestyle of the past—walking to school, playing outside, and engaging in after-school activities—has been replaced by a sedentary lifestyle of watching TV, playing video games, and using the computer. Eating habits have changed noticeably, with convenience foods that are higher in fat and calories replacing fruits and vegetables.

The consequences of obesity are significant. A child who is obese may develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. These conditions can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart attack and stroke. In addition, older teens who are obese may have an increased risk of death during adulthood.

Obesity can also affect emotional health. A child who is obese may have emotional problems in school, struggle with low self-esteem, and feel depressed.

What Is One of the Best Solutions?

Exercise is one of the main tools to fight childhood obesity. The US Department of Health and Human Services encourages children of all ages to be physically active. If your child is overweight, obese, or even of normal weight, the NHLBI recommends these steps to improve your child's health:

  • Encourage your young child (aged 1-4 years old) to actively play daily in a safe environment
  • Encourage your older child (aged 5 years and up) to participate in moderate to vigorous activity every day—Your child should aim for at least one hour per day of moderate to vigorous activity. At least three days out of the week should be vigorous activity.
  • Examples of different types of physical activity include:

    Type of ExerciseExamples
    Moderate-intensityBrisk walking, hiking, skateboarding, baseball, rollerblading, and bike riding
    Vigorous-intensityJumping rope, running, and playing sports like basketball, hockey or tennis

    The main difference between moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercises is the demand on the body. Vigorous activities force the body to work harder. The heart beats faster and breathing becomes more rapid.

    An important point to remind your child is that there are many types of activities available. So if they are not interested in skateboarding, for example, there are many other activities to try, like:

  • Rollerblading
  • Learning karate
  • Playing organized sports (eg, field hockey, soccer, football)
  • Swimming
  • Doing gymnastics
  • Strength training with weights
  • Rock climbing
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Before your child jumps into a new fitness routine, it is important that you work with your child's doctor. Being obese can put a strain on muscles and bones, possibly causing back pain and foot or ankle problems. The doctor can assess your child's overall health and recommend safe exercises.

    What Else Can Be Done to Encourage Activity?

    Another important piece to the puzzle is to focus on screen time. Screen time refers to how many hours per day your child spends in front of a screen—whether it be watching TV, using the computer, or playing video games. These are sedentary activities that contribute to obesity. The NHLBI recommends that screen time should be limited to less than two hours per day, which leaves more time for exercise. You can further encourage your child to be active by planning family outings, like going on a hike, riding bikes, or playing flag football. That way, the whole family can become healthier.