A person’s body weight is determined by the number of calories eaten versus the number of calories used. A calorie is simply a measurement of energy. Today’s kids are significantly less active compared to children in the past. In the early 1990s, it was estimated that 60 per cent of Canadian children did not meet the fitness standards for their age and that children used up to 400 per cent less energy than children did 40 years ago. In addition, the average Canadian child watches about 15 hours of TV per week and spends less than three hours being physically active. Many parents don’t realize how little exercise their children get. As well, children are now eating high-fat, high-energy food as a regular part of their diet – the ever-present fast food and junk food.
Why are today’s kids inactive? Television, video games and the Internet have largely been blamed for the decrease in physical activity but this is only part of the problem. More people now live in cities. Compared to a rural setting, physical chores largely do not exist in the city. Our society is also becoming more automated. To be physically active, children often need to take part in either organized or leisure activities. In other words, children (through their parents) now have to choose to be active instead of exercising as a regular part of their daily lives.
Another problem is the ‘house-bound’ child. Most parents can remember spending a great deal of time playing outside when they were kids. This often involved exercise in the form of “running wild” or playing games with friends. Certainly having a television with only one or two channels and no remote control helped, as did not having a VCR or a computer. Neighbourhoods were more often seen as safe places for children to play. Today, parents have more concerns when their children are not within sight or earshot. Playing unaccompanied at the playground or on the school field are no longer practical options for many of today’s youth.
The family itself has undergone dramatic changes. Many households have two working parents, and there are more single parents. Both of these situations can affect a child’s opportunities to be involved in healthy activity, due to time and financial limitations. As well, there is less physical education in schools. Canadian schools only average an estimated 60 minutes of physical education per week. Decreased physical activity results in children using less energy and storing the excess as fat.
On the other side of the weight gain equation is the number of calories eaten. This is a fast food and junk food generation. Not only are many foods high in fat, they are often limited in nutritional value. When foods are not high in fat, they are often high in simple sugars, so-called empty calories. Children and adults alike are faced with fast food and junk food propaganda on television, in magazines, on billboards and even in schools. Younger children are lured to fast food places with the promise of a trinket from a popular movie with the purchase of the kid’s meal. Prizes are stashed in cereals high in sugar. Special offers are available if a certain number of proofs of purchase are sent in. One goal of this multi-billion dollar industry is to sell as much as possible. Unfortunately, in this case the consumers are children. It can be very difficult for parents not to give in to demands for these products, given the influence of advertising on children. How many jingles or slogans from fast food restaurants or junk food ads can you or your children recite?
The high level of obesity in children has significant effects for both the individual and society as a whole. The overweight, inactive child frequently becomes an overweight, inactive adult who is at increased risk for high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease and decreased self-esteem. The estimated direct Canadian health care costs in 1999 related to inactive lifestyles were $2.1 billion. The costs in 1997 related to obesity were $1.8 billion. With higher levels of obesity in the future, these costs will skyrocket, taxing an already overburdened health care system.
It is not only Canadian children who lack adequate exercise and healthy eating habits. Many adults have high-fat, high-energy diets and inactive lifestyles. Two facts are well recognized: children adopt their parents’ behaviour and healthy children become healthy adults. If parents live active lives with a focus on healthy habits, their children tend to adopt this pattern and carry it into adulthood. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.
Here are a few simple suggestions that could go a long way in solving this problem.