One of the hot-button issues lately has been the nationwide increase of obesity in school-age children. Debate has risen in venues ranging from talk radio to colleges with health science programs on whose responsibility it is to teach children how to eat properly and exercise regularly: schools, parents or both?
While a definitive answer to this question is still pending, research shows that this epidemic is not showing any signs of slowing. Health science education has shifted from emergency care to learning to care and identify chronic illnesses. Expertise now lies in those who interface with patients, not solve medical mysteries. The severe consequences of obesity in the health science education field work to highlight one thing: regardless of where the burden falls, everyone should try to pick it up.
Something that can’t be refuted is the toll obesity takes not just on a child’s health and self-esteem but also, generally speaking, his or her academic performance. Therefore, it is in schools’ best interest to stress healthy lifestyles for the sake of both the children and the U.S.’s future brain trust, so to speak.
Indeed, childhood obesity is a growing epidemic. About 17% of all children and adolescents in America are considered obese, which is way up from only a generation ago. The demographic hardest hit is low-income — one in seven children from such households are obese — in large part because unhealthier foods like hamburgers, pizza and soda are generally cheaper, more plentiful, more accessible and more aggressively advertised than healthier foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Another contributor to childhood obesity is the fact that many schools have decreased or altogether eliminated physical education from their curriculum. In 2009, only 33% of U.S. attended a course in which daily exercise was conducted. Despite the recommendation from the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans that adolescents should receive at least 60 minutes of aerobic activity a day, only 18% of students achieve this goal.
So what does it really matter that a child is overweight? The physical risks and results should be well-known: heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, breathing problems. More concerning still is the study that says if a child is obese between the ages of 10 and 13, he or she has an 80% chance of being overweight as an adult. Obesity is an affliction that’s often hard to escape.
But what many people don’t realize is its effect on a child’s school performance. A healthy body, after all, typically equates to a healthy brain. On the other hand, if a student suffers from an unhealthy lifestyle, he or she risks many academic consequences. An overweight student is usually more prone to teasing both in and out of the classroom, which results in a lower self-esteem and an inability to concentrate during instruction. And since obesity leads to scores of health problems, overweight children are also more prone to be absent from school, subsequently leading to even more missed instruction. A student’s later earning potential, therefore, might be jeopardized by carrying around extra weight. A recent Louisiana study, in fact, found that a child’s weight and fitness level are directly correlated with his or her standardized test scores.
Change has been slow to catch up with public awareness. Congress, for example, declined to cooperate with a ban on pizza from school lunches since it does contain some “vegetable” content. But some simple solutions are available, most of them commonsense. Besides encouraging your children to exercise more and providing more nutritious meals, urge your community school to expand its selection of fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria and put in a salad bar. Ask the school to limit its sale of sodas and sugary fruit drinks on campus and instead offer water.
However you choose to tackle this epidemic, remember that it’s not just your children’s health at risk but also their brains — which the U.S. will sorely need.