As a school teacher and parent, I’ve seen the impact of childhood obesity first-hand. Childhood obesity has dramatically increased over the last three decades. The percentage of obese children between the ages of 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. We see similar alarming trends among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years, with an increase in the percentage of obese teenagers growing from 5.0% to 18.1%. Addressing the issue of childhood obesity requires a concerted effort by families, teachers, local schools and school districts.
What is Obesity?
When we speak of obesity, we are referring to a category that is beyond being overweight. Most experts define obesity as body weight that is 30 percent or more above the weight that is considered ideal for the person’s age and height. It’s important to note that this is not the same as what some refer to as baby fat or simple issues of a child growing into their frame. While the cause of obesity has to do with several factors, there are practical steps that we can take as parents and educators to help address the problem. We should begin by identifying some of the challenges related to the epidemic of childhood obesity. I’ll also suggest some research-based solutions. Let’s jump in.
Physical Education Class/Healthy Schools Learn Better
Obesity reduces the amount of exercise that a child participates in and also increases blood pressure. Play and physical activity are vital and needed parts of the development of school aged children. As children actively play, they develop both physically and socially. Including exercise as an important part of child development positively impacts the overall health and well being of the student. The benefits are often reflected in the classroom, as healthy, happy students tend to perform at a higher academic level than those who are not. This is one of the reasons that we see renewed emphasis on daily physical education classes in states like Florida, where it is mandated. Studies show that by providing our students with 45 minutes of structured or free physical activity daily, we make tremendous inroads into improving brain function, increasing the child’s energy level, and building motivation. In light of these findings, every school should factor in some structured physical activity for students on a daily basis.
Healthier School Meals and Snacks
Childhood obesity increases the likeliness that a child will have more serious health issues in adulthood, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Again the formula is straightforward; exercise and diet have tremendous impact. An active and physically involved child will have a higher tendency to develop healthier habits and maintain proper eating habits throughout adulthood. Healthy habits begin early. Parents should make sure that they are sending their children to school with balanced meals, and that school districts and local schools are providing healthy alternatives to students in the school cafeteria. Some school districts are moving away from vending machines stocked with soda, chips, and other forms of junk food in favor of healthier alternatives. That is a wise decision that will ultimately help every student.
Create A Supportive Environment
Obese children are more likely to experience psychological problems, especially depression. In today’s world where body image is elevated to a place of primacy, school age children experience strong peer pressure in school to be slim. This may also manifest in peer alienation, bullying, and other forms of aggression. Not only do obese children have to contend with peer pressure, they also find it more difficult to participate in certain age-appropriate extra curricular like sports, dancing, cheering, etc. This can lead to a sense of social isolation within the school community. It’s a sad commentary on today’s culture, but the reality is that often the most popular students within a school happen to be the most physically attractive. This reality can push many school age children who struggle with obesity over the psychological edge. Parents and teachers must be aware of any signs that your child is in distress. Seeking out the assistance of a school guidance counselor is strongly encouraged if you notice signs of depression with your child.
Lesson Plans and Health Curriculum
Obese children can become obsessed with body size and may develop eating disorders as adolescents, including anorexia and bulimia. While I cannot condone obesity due to the unhealthy consequences that it produces, we must guard against punishing those who struggle with their weight. Adults can help overweight children and adolescents by participating in school-based health councils. Health courses and curriculum can be offered at school for education and support. I’m aware of many teachers approaching the subject creatively. Some teachers allow students to dance during recess. Others eliminate food-based rewards and replace them with activities. And still. some incorporate stretching exercises into their daily routine. There are many ways to include healthy habits into our classroom routines. One final thought is that it’s important to make sure to present balanced lesson plans and curriculum within the classroom that celebrates the diversity within our world and culture. Celebrate people of all shapes and sizes. Children who struggle with obesity require our support and hands-on help, not our condemnation. It is important that every classroom teacher show extreme sensitivity in this area as we work to produce happier, more engaged, and motivated students in this next generation.