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Childhood Obesity and Exercise

By Janice H. Dickter, M.D., Pediatrician, and
Steven J. Dickter, M.D., Family Practitioner
The Chester County Hospital

Published: July 9, 2007

There's an epidemic of obesity in children. More than 15% of children are overweight, and the incidence has doubled in the last 30 years. Many people look at this statistic as trivial, just typical Americans worried about image. But obese children are more likely to have serious health problems, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and psychosocial difficulties. People need to understand this condition better, in order to stop the increasing obesity in children.

Standard teaching is that obesity is merely the over-consumption of calories. Therefore, the reasoning goes, the best way to treat a child's weight problem is to limit caloric intake. Many parents try to "cure" their child by limiting all junk food, and forcing the "good" foods upon them such as fruits and vegetables. Admittedly, more fruits and vegetables in place of fatty junk food will do wonders for a child's health. But this strategy is only one side of the equation; not enough attention is being paid to the other side. Another large part of staying fit is keeping a high activity level.

Families need to start emphasizing exercise for their children because without exercise, managing food consumption is only damage control. Exercise provides a person with the means to burn calories, rather than restrict the calories taken in. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an hour a day of moderate intensity exercise. This level of activity should raise a child's heart rate to 65-80% of maximum, which will increase cardiovascular health, as well as help to maintain a healthy weight. In smaller children exercise may equate to a few hours spent out of doors, starting and stopping activity. In older children, exercise may extend into running or bicycling for sustained periods or specific distances. A good way for a parent to incorporate both the younger and older children in exercise is to plan family activities.

Parental fitness has been shown to correlate closely with childhood fitness. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that children lost more weight when their parents were included in an exercise program. Children who grow up in an active household are much more likely to continue exercising throughout their lifetime. Family activities do not need to be structured sports, but must be frequent, vigorous, and on-going. Encouraging intense efforts in children requires parents to find varied and enjoyable activities, which may change as children grow.

Favored family activities may evolve, from playing tag with the youngest children, to chasing Frisbees with the older children, to long-distance biking with adolescents. The patterns set in childhood will persist and help combat obesity, leading to better health throughout life. Parents need to find the time to encourage family fitness, as well as personal fitness. It's good for parents, and it's necessary for the children.

This article was published as part of the Daily Local News Medical Column series which appears every Monday. It has been reprinted by permission of the Daily Local News.

Last Updated: 7/27/2009