Monday, January 9, 2012

Skyrocketing Childhood Obesity Should Be No Surprise. Dealing With It Successfully Will Be.

"...      In 1969, about 90 percent of kids who lived within a mile of school walked or rode bikes to get there. In 2004, just 48 percent did that at least one day a week, the new study found.  Separately, federal statistics suggest the numbers are worse, of course, for children who live farther from school. In 1969, 42 percent walked or cycled and in 2001 (the most recent data available for that group), just 16 percent did..."

The clip above, from a 2007 MSNBC.MSN story (click quote to go to its source) is certainly relevant to a Sunday Albuquerque Journal story on the epidemic of childhood obesity prevalent in the U.S. ("Child Obesity Worries Congress", pg. A1, continued on A6, by Rob Hotakainen of the McClatchy-Tribune). That this is a crisis should surprise no one, and I wonder why it is "news". Neither is it news that so many of our schools are cutting Phys Ed classes, re-assigning phys ed teachers, and concentrating on academic subjects. With both the Federal government, through No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and local and state education departments concentrating narrowly on demonstrating success in standardized test scores in traditional academic subjects while at the same time facing budget austerity and the dire consequences of failing to meet NCLB benchmarks, anything else has to and will give way to the testing juggernaut. That should not surprise Congress, since it passed the law. I'm not convinced Congress can fix it with more law.

I saw that trend growing in Hawaii more than a decade ago. The Hawaii Dept. of Education once, during the 1990's, testified AGAINST the Hawaii Bicycling League's (HBL) efforts to obtain state match funding to offer Bike Ed to 4th graders in all of our public schools, saying it would detract from instructional time (at the time, we were teaching it in most of Oahu's schools and wanted to expand the program). Meanwhile, the HI DOE was working at cross purposes to physical fitness by selling junk food in the schools in order to raise funds and cutting its own P.E. budget. As fellow HBL Board member John Goody and I opined in a Honolulu op ed column, such short sighted efforts would ensure that kids would be too hyped up from both a lack of exercise and a constant diet of junk food to learn anything.

But the schools (and the Feds) don't get to shoulder all the blame for Fat Kid Nation. There is plenty of blame to go around.

Alluding to the introductory quote, we know that during the roughly half a century since I was a kid in grade school, America has rebuilt our cities and suburbs in a way that makes it increasingly difficult, and less likely, for kids to ride or walk to school or play. Centralization of schools, arterial-and-cul de sac development, heavy traffic, roads built to optimize vehicle efficiency over all else,  inner city decay, and parental fears of letting kids take the bus or bike rather than be sequestered in the family SUV have together ensured that today's joystick addicted and fat food addled kids don't get sufficient exercise as a basic part of everyday life.

It will take a very determined change in our personal fitness paradigm to get our kids fit rather than fat again. We have to stop looking at partial solutions to complicated problems, just for starters. Schools should once again teach complete students rather than detached brains. We also need to remake our communities to emphasize physical activity rather than sacrificing it to driving as if fast and easy motor vehicle mobility was our only core value. Parents need to toss the kids out to play again, too. They are at much higher risk from inactivity than from bogey-men.

Physically unfit youth are nothing new to America. Back in 1956, President Eisenhower founded the President's Council on Youth Fitness after studies such as Kraus/Weber showed that our kids were failing basic physical fitness tests en masse and falling behind their European counterparts. President Eisenhower, who led the successful Anglo-American invasion of Europe that helped put an end to the Third Reich, knew how important physical fitness was to our national security.  His leadership, in no small part, led to kids like me being whipped into shape by strong P.E. programs as well as our healthier lifestyles. For example, we rode our bikes several miles to the school playground to play ball and did so on pretty basic country roads often lacking shoulders or anything like a modern bike facility. What they lacked in infrastructure they made up for in driver care. Asking to be driven to the ball fields would have been... just weird.

In the intervening decades since Eisenhower was President, the need for physical fitness has not decreased and in fact has gotten more important. With fewer jobs requiring manual labor and with longer average lifespans, the hazards of poor health attributed to poor diet and sedentary behavior are being seen in skyrocketing health care costs and decreased quality of life. Likewise, while "boots on the ground" in combat situations obviously require physical fitness, even the soldier sitting for hours at a time at a joystick flying a drone (or for any number of mental activities prevalent in modern society) has an absolute requirement for physical and mental stamina.

The present bickering in Congress (does Congress do anything besides bicker?) over what to do at the Federal level, and the lax phys ed standards at state and local levels, not to mention, an unwillingness by our educational bureaucrats to push back effectively against faulty academic paradigms that stress easy to measure (and perhaps misleading?) metrics of success rather than pursue hard to define success criteria, probably have old General/President Eisenhower spinning in his grave. I think its time we assault this dire public health problem on the scale of an Operation Overlord rather than argue about who is at fault. Changing our bad health habits is best done at a young age. It will take a big paradigm shift to do something about Fat Nation, and we don't have the luxury of assigning the solution to one agency. To win the Battle of the Bulge, our teachers, parents, urban planners, traffic engineers, politicians, and government bureaucrats all need to wake up and smell the coffee rather than the donuts.


1 comment:

Steve A said...

Sugar, starch, and driven to school. It is a wonder things are not worse...