“Fat children eat better diets than their thinner classmates,” read a recent headline in the online edition of the UK’s The Telegraph, citing a study in Norway. Does this latest research suggesting that a lack of exercise, rather than a junk food diet, may be to blame for obesity? In other words, if you are feeding your kids – for the most part – healthy foods but they are not getting enough exercise, you are not doing enough to protect them from weight and health problems.
Helping us answer whether the lack of exercise can indeed undo a child’s healthy diet is our close adviser James O. Hill, PhD. Dr. Hill is Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at UC Denver and Health Sciences Center in Denver, CO and serves as the Director of the Center for Human Nutrition, a nutrition center funded by the NIH. He is one of the nations top experts on the prevention of obesity.
What Dr. Hill keeps emphasizing is that it really takes several things to raise happy, healthy kids. “You can cut out the fast food, you can cut out the video games. No one thing is going to make a difference,” he says. “Kids don’t get out and play, so there is less activity at home.” Too much time spent in front of a screen, of course, is one of the causes. According to Dr. Hill, kids today lead lives just as sedentary as their parents’ lives; “they sit all day, just like adults, they sit all evening, just like adults.”
Rather than just looking at the child, let’s look at whole family’s lifestyle. If kids grow up in a family that watches TV after dinner, they will sit around and watch TV too. They will grow up to be inactive, in contrast to kids in a family that orients their family life around physical activity. Interestingly, Dr. Hill doesn’t think that schools cutting back PE programs are a big part of the problem of our kids not getting enough exercise. Why? He thinks that the physical education in schools isn’t very good to begin with. “So putting bad PE back in the schools in not a very good strategy either,” says Dr. Hill.
We are leaving behind the kids who aren’t athletically talented
Dr. Hill looks at the bigger picture – the way we see sports as a society. “We do a very good job for the elite athletes, because they are very talented athletically,” he says. But what about the other kids who aren’t great at sports? “We are a society that watches sports. So we take the best kids and we have a lot of tremendous sports programs for them. They get very active,” says Dr. Hill. “But we don’t have very good sports programs for the kids that aren’t very good athletes, because nobody wants to watch them.”
What should parents do? “We have to find activities that interest the kids who aren’t the athletic kids,” suggests Dr. Hill. Harder yet, parents have to come up with physical activities that are more fun than sitting in front of the TV or playing computer games.
Be under no illusions. Dr. Hill knows, “It is going to be difficult, but I think that’s the challenge we have to face.”
Parents will have to get more involved
“You can’t just tell your kids to go out and play, to go out and be active. You really have to do it with them, be a role model,” recommends Dr. Hill. “The best thing parents can do for their kids is to be a role model.” That’s hard, we know. But our kids facing health risks due to lacking physical activity – even if we feed them the healthiest foods on earth – is a hard problem families face.
“You are not going to get to a healthy weight without addressing both a healthy diet and physical activity. If you just try it with one or the other it isn’t going to work,” concludes our expert.