When talk focuses on childhood
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.
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 The active lifestyle of the past—walking to school, playing outside, and engaging in after-school activities—has been replaced by a sedentary lifestyle of watching TV, playing video games, and using the computer.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.
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 environmentEncourage 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 Exercise||Examples|
|Moderate-intensity||Brisk walking, hiking, skateboarding, baseball, rollerblading, and bike riding|
|Vigorous-intensity||Jumping 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: RollerbladingLearning karatePlaying organized sports (eg, field hockey, soccer, football)SwimmingDoing gymnasticsStrength training with weightsRock climbingCross-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.
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.
Aerobic, muscle, and bone-strengthening: what counts? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/what_counts.html. Updated March 30, 2011. Accessed May 14, 2014.
Chapter 3: Active children and adolescents. Health.gov—US Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter3.aspx. Accessed May 14, 2014.
How much physical activity do children need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/children.html. Updated November 9, 2011. Accessed May 14, 2014.
Krul M, van der Wouden JC, Schellevis FG, van Suijlekom-Smit LW, Koes BW. Musculoskeletal problems in overweight and obese children. Ann Fam Med. 2009;7(4):352-356.
NCHBI integrated guidelines for pediatric cardiovascular risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated February 12, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2014.
Obesity in children and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 24, 2014. Accessed May 14, 2014.
Last reviewed May 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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