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Food for thought on winning the battle of childhood obesity

June 14, 2006|by BILL KOHLER / Tri-State Editor

Much has been written and said over the past several years about childhood obesity.

Our kids are overweight, out of shape and headed toward a lifetime of obesity and other health concerns, according to dozens of studies and reports authored by local and national health groups and organizations.

One study published this winter even went as far as blaming TV for contributing to the increasing roundness of our nation's youth.

The study from researchers at the University of Michigan Health System found that a 3-year-old exposed to two hours of TV a day was nearly three times more likely to be overweight than a child who watched fewer than two hours.

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There's plenty of blame to go around, including TV, video games, the Internet and the way technology in general has made us less active. Even something as simple and benign as the remote control has slowed us down. Imagine actually getting up and walking to the TV to turn the channel or to adjust the volume. It's literally hard to swallow.

Well here's some food for thought:

It's not too late to get it turned around.

We - as a community, and specifically as parents - can do something about it.

According to Jan Crudden, executive director of the Healthy Communities Partnership of Greater Franklin County, it's a matter of families finding the balance of the energy going in and the energy going out.

Huh?

The in part is the hard one for kids and adults. It includes what, when and where we're eating and the portion sizes.

The out part includes our amount of motion - or blatant lack thereof.

As a society, we are not moving as much. We're driving everywhere because our homes are in subdivisions away from schools and business and our workplaces are miles and miles away from our homes.

Crudden says we're also way busier than we used to be and we don't take as much time to play, to get outside and keep active. Also, schools are cutting back on physical education time because they see recess and gym class as extra time that doesn't help with national test scores for which they are judged.

I think as concerned parents and community members (of which I am both), we owe it to the kids to do something. Here are some ideas that can help:

1. Start right at the top. Look at what we're eating, how much we're eating and become aware of it. If parents are setting examples, most kids will follow suit. "Use your head," Crudden says.

2. Plan out your meals and limit snacking, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Do not use food as a reward and eat meals as a family instead of while watching TV, the group says on its Web site, www.aacap.org.

3. Look at your lifestyle and reinvest in ways to be more active. Crudden admits most people are not going to to go out and join a fitness club and start hitting the treadmills and free weights five nights a week. However, parents can set limits for computer, TV and video game time. Walk the dog, turn up the music and dance with your kids (I acknowledge this only works with pre-teens) or just get out and walk. "Walking is one of the best things you can do," Crudden says.

Walking doesn't have to be boring either. Walk on the C&O Canal, or at Renfrew or Pine Hill parks in Pennsylvania. Explore the beautiful national parks and countryside of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Do treasure hunts and nature walks.

4. Sign your kids up for soccer, softball, swimming, dance class, anything. If you grew up in the 1960s and '70s, you remember the limited choices - Little League, the YMCA, summer recreation classes, the local pool, dance class.

For girls, this is a period of physical renaissance. Girls have so many more choices. Softball and soccer leagues for girls didn't exist when I was a kid in Waynesboro, Pa. Every town has some kind of dance studio and the YMCAs and municipal recreation departments offer classes that are reasonably priced for everyone.

5. Lighten up a little. Go to the park just for fun. Show your kids how cool it can be to be active. My daughter and I bought a big plastic ball for $4 at Kmart the other day and went to Memorial Park in Waynesboro and spent a half hour just kicking it and chasing. We laughed nearly the entire time and plan to make it a weekly endeavor.

6. And for all you developers and engineers out there, make an effort to include open space for recreation and playgrounds in your developments. The cost to you is far less than the benefits it will provide to the families who will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to live there. Government officials need to insist on these amenities when they're approving these plans.

So can we win the battle? Crudden thinks we can, and her organization has made it their goal to help us get there. "Our mission is to improve the health habits of the people in Franklin County," she says.

We can win and it starts with No. 1. Hey, I'm not perfect and I'm not immune from bad habits. But I'm trying. I'm trying to give my child the chance to be healthy, active, happy and smart enough to make the right choices.

"We have to start using a little bit of restraint," Crudden notes, "and we have to be more active than we have been.

"The equations have to be back in balance," she adds.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State Editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached by telephone at 800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at billk@herald-mail.com.

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