Fit Parents, Fit Kids

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2007

In 1960 4 percent of America's children were obese. That number is now just under 17 percent, with no sign that it is about to go back down. This is serious stuff, costly to the individual and costly to the nation. Obese children are likely to become obese adults with lower self-esteem, lower incomes and life-shortening health problems. Not only do obese children have a high incidence of type 2 diabetes, they develop complications of that disease in fewer years than those who become diabetic as middle-aged adults.

It seems logical that weight gain is simply a matter of eating too much but the increase in poundage by children in the United States can mainly be accounted for by a single factor: lack of physical activity.

It wasn't long ago that school recess meant a quick game of tag or hopscotch, P.E. was a regular part of the curriculum and after-school activities included baseball, basketball or touch football. Now the threat of lawsuits has cowed school administrators into limiting recess activities, banning tag and scrapping monkey bars. Physical education classes and phys ed teachers disappeared when schools hit the financial wall. Pop Warner, Little League and organized soccer have replaced those pickup games. A couple of generations ago those of us who were athletically inept could always find some casual game to play even if we were picked last. Today's organized kidsports usually require Mom to provide transportation. Ever notice how few kids bike to soccer practice?

Kids learn to stay fit in the same way that they have learned to talk since the Stone Age: they imitate Mom and Dad and the older siblings. They don't learn vocabulary and proper grammar in the classroom, but by hearing it spoken at home, in small doses. It works for physical activity too. We have more than enough studies that show that parents who are physically active raise kids who emulate them. It's time to recruit all parents to engage in sports and play activities with their children and that doesn't mean spending hours at the gym.

Even a time-challenged family can afford to spend 15 minutes to walk a block or two or bike a couple of miles while dinner is cooking or after dinner while the dishes are soaking. (Isn't that a great way to put off dishwashing anyway?) One weekday could be "play day" when Mom or Dad shortens the workday by just an hour to spend the time kicking around a soccer ball, taking a hike, pedaling to the park or learning how to play tennis. It's a rare family that can't find a couple of hours on a weekend to do these things.

Why not recruit the grandparents, or aunts, uncles and friendly neighbors to join in? Two thirds of them are overweight anyway and could stand to burn off a few calories. Most of all, these will provide something else -- cherished memories.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.