How did we get in this mess?

One criticism I have heard of my posts is my assumption that all children are fat.  That is not true. I have the privilege to work with many healthy kids from new walkers to advanced and high level athletes. I don’t assume that all kids are fat and out of shape, but the average child is struggling with weight issues and is considered by national standards to be unhealthy. Any of my other posts have stated the results of such a terrible trend and even what we can do to combat it but I thought I should maybe say something about how this problem comes about.

There are many facets to the production of our youth trend toward obesity. In fact many university’s have studied the issue and have all arrived at nearly the same conclusions. (See the press release for the study from the University of Michigan).  The studies show that kids are overwhelmed with messages, from their environment to mass marketing, that lead them to make unhealthy choices.

Environmentally we have to include socio-economic factors.  Poor kids have a greater access to unhealthy food. Working class poor kids have homes where 2 parents working means that they have more fast food nights, or nights when a processed food is the meal instead of a good healthy blend of food choices. Whenever I travel, which for competitions- is a lot, I can determine the lower-income parts of a town by the area’s propensity of fast food restaurants; more means people in that area live with less. Fast food has higher calories, more fat, lower benefits and easier access. Also, lower-income neighborhoods have more convenience stores and less grocery stores. Convenience stores provide more processed and packaged food that has minimal nutritional content. It will fill you up cheaply, but what is the real cost? (Check back a couple of posts and read “How much is that Twix?”)

Our schools are contributing to the problem too. In this time of knee-jerk budget cuts, schools have had to contract with soft drink companies to support budget gaps.  This means that schools give children access to unhealthy choices all day and every day. In exchange for providing this detrimental option to kids the schools get back, on average $6.48 per student in high school and $.70 per middle schooler. That’s not too much considering Wisconsin just cut the money allotted each child per year by $635. Thanks PepsiCo for your overwhelming assistance.

Not to mention that budget cuts mean that gym classes are cut or strained. Kids get less activity time than ever before. Pressed under curriculum requirements and the fear of “play associated liability” (AKA being hurt on a playground) many schools are limiting or eliminating recesses. Nevermind that activity time breaks up the day and is shown to increase a child’s capacity to learn. This activity deficit has been minimally covered by private businesses, like Gymfinity, that provide healthy activity and instruction to children that don’t get enough during school hours. Yes, private industry has stepped up. But I’ll be honest: in order to provide those programs I (and other private gym owners) have to charge a tuition that the neediest kids cannot afford. Despite offering scholarships, gyms like Gymfinity, cannot do it all and sadly our programs often are only attended by those who can afford it, and they don’t come from neighborhoods with a lot of McDonalds….if you know what I mean.

On television, radio, print media, and the internet advertising targets children with pressure to accept and seek out unhealthy food choices. I know that children recognize the McDonald’s Arches before they can read even one letter. That ain’t right.  We see more ads for high calorie junk food than we will ever- ever- ever see for the farmer’s market or even for something like orange juice. However orange juice made from sugar added concentrate, we do get to see. Sadly that pacifies us into thinking that the media blitz on children is balanced. It’s not.

These factors combined with the marketing for video games that encourage sedentary lifestyles means that children are moving less. I fell for it too. When we bought our Wii, I actually heard my self saying “at least they’re active and not just sitting doing nuthin.” Wrong. Have you ever played Wii, it’s fun but it’s not real activity.

Frank Chaloupka, head of the University of Illinois at Chicago research team said “”Research is showing us that we have in our schools and communities a perfect storm that will continue to feed the childhood obesity epidemic until we adopt policies that improve the health of our communities and our kids.”  When do we do that? What will be the straw that breaks the camel’s preverbial back? Apparently this is one tolerable camel.

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