The Obesity Time Bomb
Childhood obesity, “The Major Global Health Problem of Our Time,” reported the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an editorial dated July, 2009. “Medical Profession united in fight to defuse obesity timebomb” exclaimed the UK’s Academy of Medical Royal Colleges while recently introducing a nationwide campaign to fight ‘the single greatest public health threat in the UK – rising levels of child and adult obesity.’
According to the World Health Organization, “Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. The problem is global and is steadily affecting many low-and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. The prevalence has increased at an alarming rate. Globally, in 2010, the number of overweight children under the age of five is estimated to be over 42 million. Close to 35 million of these are living in developing countries.”
Why all the panic? It’s arguable that no other medical condition wreaks as much havoc on the human mind and body as obesity. This is not just a condition that can lead to a host of deadly diseases; it also comes with deep psychological, sociological and financial cost. Among the chronic physical conditions and diseases that are known to result from obesity is diabetes II; several cancers including breast, colorectal and pancreatic; coronary heart disease; hypertension; stroke; asthma; sleep apnea and osteoarthritis. A recent study published in Pediatrics indicates that obesity may actually contribute to the risk of autism in the unborn children of obese women. Known debilitating mental health consequences include depression, poor self-esteem and low self-confidence. Sadly, obese children often suffer from humiliating social isolation, bullying and discrimination.
Reuters recently reported that the medical costs directly related to obesity are now nearly $190 billion per year in the US, or nearly 10% of all healthcare costs. A Mayo Clinic study indicated that overweight employees, those with a BMI of 40 or higher, averaged nearly $5,500 more per year in medical costs than those below a BMI of 40. Indirect and hidden costs associated with obesity include billions in lost productivity, absenteeism, customized furniture, fixtures and equipment. Absurdly, additional fuel required to transport obese passengers in automobiles, buses and planes is estimated to be over $10 billion per year.
Yes, there is no denying it; we are in the grips of a global health crisis with human and financial costs that are destined to rival any epidemic known to mankind. Yet, despite all of the indisputable data and visible evidence, this is an epidemic that has grown from an incident rate of 13% to 34% over the last 50 years. In 2007, John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health stated that “if the rate of obesity and overweight continues at this pace, by 2015, 75 percent of adults and nearly 24 percent of U.S. children and adolescents will be overweight or obese.” The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges is even less optimistic and estimates that 50% of all UK children will be obese or overweight by 2020.
Not surprisingly, the two most common direct causes are routinely acknowledged to be consuming too many calories and too little physical activity. The nutrition challenge is not just due to the increased popularity of fast food restaurants, but also the convenience of processed foods and sugary drinks. Despite packaging requirements that now clearly detail the nutrition and caloric value of most packaged and fast foods, overweight children still tend to consume calories at a rate far exceeding their daily metabolic requirement.
Compounding this problem is a disturbing physical activity trend that continues to be challenged by the popularity of sedentary activities like TV viewing, video game playing and social media interaction. Unfortunately, most schools are not helping much either, as physical education classes and recess time continue to dwindle. Need more evidence? Visit any playground or ball park after school or on a weekend to witness the lack of children in “free play.” And, if obesity sets in at a very young age, the likelihood of playing organized sports later decreases as well.
What is the answer to reversing this disturbing childhood obesity trend? Well, there are many obvious answers derived from most of the lifestyle causes, such as eat less and exercise more. However, what most behavioral answers have in common for childhood obesity is the need for parent or guardian intervention. Not just parent awareness and leadership, but parent involvement! That challenge is exasperated by the fact that many obese and sedentary children also have one or more obese and/ or sedentary parents. But therein lays the remarkable win-win too! Although some parents have legitimate reasons for not exercising themselves, for those who are capable, exercising for at least 30 minutes per day with your overweight child can provide not only tremendous physical and mental health benefits for parent and child, but also a bonding experience which is hard to replicate. Where to start? Here is the really good news; most experts agree that for safe, efficient and effective cardiovascular exercise, nothing beats a nice, brisk walk! Done hand in hand, few things can bring parent and child closer together.
Doug Werner is the author of Abbie Gets Fit, a children’s book chronicling a true story about his nine year old daughter’s fitness transformation. He is a 35-year veteran of the fitness industry and a recipient of that industry’s Distinguished Service Award. Doug is currently a vice president for Healthtrax Fitness and Wellness. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.