It is well known that the United States faces a childhood obesity epidemic. In fact, 81% of respondents in a poll on the topic considered childhood obesity a serious concern and two-thirds believed the problem was getting worse (Hassink, Hill & Biddinger 2011). Actually, national surveys show a stabilization of childhood obesity rates and even small declines in some localities (RWJF 2012).
Despite evidence that the crisis may be easing, it is still a serious challenge. Qualified fitness professionals are ideally suited to meet this challenge by leading the charge to increase physical activity within their local schools and communities. Furthermore, the fitness industry must do more to play a meaningful role in reversing the epidemic.
While it is not “easy” to attain a healthier weight, children are frequently more successful than their adult counterparts if the right tools and support are available. Childhood obesity results from an imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure. By improving nutrition habits and increasing physical activity levels, many children can avert the harmful consequences of obesity to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
But the intervention must begin as soon as possible. The earlier a child is identified as overweight or obese and the sooner lifestyle changes are initiated, the more likely the child will be to achieve a healthier weight and enter adulthood without the burden of obesity (Freedman et al. 2005). One reason for the success of earlier intervention is that unlike many teenagers and adults, children are still rapidly growing in height. A 6-year-old child who is obese can achieve a healthier weight without losing a pound—simply by maintaining weight while gaining inches.
A Cochrane review highlighted several steps that may help prevent childhood obesity, especially in 6- to 12-year-olds (Waters et al. 2011). Fitness professionals are perfectly suited to helping with many of these approaches, which include the following:
- Develop or participate in a school curriculum that addresses healthy eating, physical activity and body image. This type of program is likely to have most impact if it is implemented in an underserved or low-income area.
- Offer more sessions for physical activity and the development of “fundamental movement skills” (like running, skipping, jumping and throwing) throughout the school week. These activities could take place in an outdoor after-school program or in a gym as a part of a youth fitness training program.
- Improve the nutritional quality of the food supply in schools. (Many improvements have occurred in this domain on a national scale in the past year.).
- Develop environments and cultural practices that support children in eating healthier foods and being active throughout each day.
- Lend support (for example, through professional development and capacity-building activities) to teachers and other staff to help them implement health promotion strategies and activities for children.
- Offer parent support and home activities that encourage children to be more active, eat more nutritious foods and spend less time in screen-based activities. (Parent training workshops or even family health coaching interventions could help to accomplish this goal.)
Recommendations in Action: What Is Working and How to Get Involved
The drive to combat childhood obesity is getting help from city and state governments, schools, medical societies, health organizations and influential nonprofits such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has invested millions of dollars in reversing childhood obesity. While the private sector—restaurants, food companies and other for-profit organizations—is often blamed for obesity (and many times, rightfully so), many companies and groups have pledged to make changes to improve children’s health. An example of a powerful and growing collaborative including many of these entities is The Partnership for a Healthier America, founded in 2010 in conjunction with the Let’s Move! campaign.
A nonprofit organization, the PHA aims to connect public and private partners who have made meaningful commitments to improve the health environment for kids. In its 2012 summary report, the PHA highlighted several successes in this effort, most of which focus on enhancing the food and physical activity environment for kids.
This is a sampling of PHA partners’ physical activity commitments:
- ChildObesity180 launched a nationwide competition, ASAP (Active Schools Acceleration Project), to reward school-based programs and technological advancements designed to increase physical activity for kids during the school day. The top programs were selected, and schools can now apply for $1,000 grants to bring those programs to their classrooms. For more information on this grant opportunity, go to www.activeschoolsasap.org/acceleration-grants.
- FUNdamental Field Hockey pledged to engage 15,000 children through the introduction of 250 programs nationwide. The organization provides free equipment and a curriculum to elementary schools, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, and parks and recreation centers.
- The United States Tennis Association reached 100,000 kids in after-school and summer programs and donated $285,000 worth of tennis equipment to schools and community-based organizations.
- USA Cycling and USA BMX donated bikes and offered free races, clinics and 30-day memberships to kids across the U.S. Over 270,000 kids participated.
- USA Swimming donated swimming lessons to 75,000 underserved children.
- USA Track & Field engaged over 140,000 children in 2012. It also donated 15,000 “Track in a Box” kits to children in low-income and underserved schools.
In early 2013, in conjunction with Let’s Move! celebrating its third anniversary by launching Let’s Move! Active Schools, several organizations committed large amounts of money to fight childhood obesity through the promotion of physical activity. For example, Nike® committed $50 million over 5 years to help create active schools and physically active communities across the U.S. Kaiser Permanente® pledged $1.76 million to bring its “Fire Up Your Feet” activity program to every elementary and middle school in the country.
Notably, except for the YMCA, no major fitness industry companies or organizations were included on the PHA partners list as of April 2013, an omission the industry could correct by encouraging trainers to get involved in programs.
Freedman, D.S., et al. 2005. The relation of childhood BMI to adult adiposity: The Bogalusa Heart Study. Pediatrics, 115 (1), 22-27.
Hassink, S.G., Hill, K.S., & Biddinger, S. 2011. Introduction: Pediatric obesity and the role of children’s hospitals. Pediatrics, 128 (Suppl. 2), S45-50.
RWJF (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation). 2012. Health policy snapshot: Declining childhood obesity rates: Where are we seeing the most progress? www.rwjf.org/content/dam/farm/reports/issue_briefs/2012/rwjf401163; retrieved Apr. 15, 2013.
Waters, E., et al. 2011. Interventions for preventing obesity in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 7 (12), CD001871.