Fat, fatter, fattest. That’s the harshly accurate description of many kids today. Childhood obesity rates have doubled over the past decade, and kids have gone from being fat to severely obese. Overall, African-American children are statistically the fattest compared with their white and Latino counterparts. And fat kids mean unhealthy kids. Obese children and adolescents are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Unfortunately, obesity isn’t something kids outgrow; obese children are more likely to become obese adults.
Logged On, Tuned Out
Why are kids packing on the pounds? A big factor is our sedentary lifestyle. We’ve turned into a nation of couch potatoes and mini spuds and spend far too much time indoors and online instead of outside and moving our bodies. Then there’s the increased pressure faced by schools to pass standardized academic tests; as a result, many public schools have eliminated physical education classes and recess.
So how do we engage both the brain and the body? One way is through Litereracise: That’s the concept created by children’s book author Irene Smalls, and it tackles the dual problems of plummeting educational achievement and skyrocketing obesity rates.
Literacy+Exercise=Fit Smart Kids
People learn while doing. It’s more than a truism; research shows that physical activity stimulates various regions of the brain and the formation of new brain cells.
Smalls came to this realization one day while she was teaching and reading to kids. While she peppered them with questions, they were dancing and moving. Not only did they answer the questions correctly, but they were moving, laughing and having fun while doing so. Smalls recognized the importance of reaching out to the whole child so he or she could move and learn at the same time. That inspired her to find ways to tap into the mind-body connection. Since then, she’s made it her mission to promote Literacy+Exercise, or Literacise.
Literacise is poised to take a big leap with the opening of Story Steps, an interactive educational art exhibit opening Oct. 3 at Copley Square in Boston. It’s based on "Jonathan & His Mommy" a story about a young boy and his mom taking a walk. The bilingual English/Spanish exhibit gives children a chance to connect physically with reading and learning. Smalls’ goal is to spread the word and bring Story Steps to other libraries and museums in the U.S. and around the world.
To promote her program, Smalls travels around the country visiting schools and teaching exercise based curriculums and lesson plans to educators and administrators designed to promote exercise as well and reading—and hopefully developing a lifelong passion for both.
Downsizing the Student Body
Another organization aimed at childhood obesity is Parents Against Junk Food. As the name implies, its mission is to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of junk food marketed and sold to kids. One of its main targets is the National School Lunch Program. On the surface, the program seems like a great way to provide free or low-cost lunches to schoolchildren. Unfortunately, it may be an extremely expensive “free” lunch because the calorie- and fat-laden meals are making kids fatter and setting them up for a host of problems later in life. Parents Against Junk Food is supporting a bill that would raise the nutrition standards for all foods and beverages sold in schools throughout the school day, including in vending machines, snack lines and school stores.
If obesity is an issue in your home or even your own community but you don’t know where to start to tackle the problem, log on to We Can!, or Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition. Four of the National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in collaboration with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, have combined their resources and activities to create a program designed for families and communities to help children maintain a healthy weight. We Can! offers parents and families tips and activities to encourage healthy eating, increase physical activity and reduce sedentary or screen time. You can join as an individual looking to improve the health of your family or take the initiative to become a local organizer to and receive support and partnerships to run a community-based program.
Teach Them Well
Community- and school-based programs have a major impact on kids’ health, but good health habits start at home. The two biggest things are clearly diet and exercise; parents are the gatekeepers and the biggest role models for kids. First, get rid of the junk food in the house. You don’t need the temptation of eating their fatty snacks; your kids will be better off with healthier options like fruit and homemade treats. Next, make sure that you move your body every day. Active adults inspire their children to be fit and healthy. That means turning of the TV, logging off the Internet and taking time to do something physical together. It doesn’t have to be a big production. It can be as simple as taking a walk or a bike ride or just playing in the park or the yard. Not only will you reap the physical benefits but you’ll also create a low-stress environment to open dialogue and improve your relationship with your child. And while you’re at it, give your brain a workout, too: Stop by the library and get a book.
Alicia Villarosa is a regular contributor to The Root.