In the simplest terms, your weight is determined by calories consumed (energy in) versus calories expended or burned during physical activity (calories out). This is the so-called energy balance. The term calorie refers to energy contained within a particular food. If you take in more calories than you burn (a positive energy balance), you will gain weight. Burn more than you take in (a negative energy balance) and you will lose weight. It is a little more complex in kids than adults because children must gain weight to grow and develop normally.
Today's kids are significantly less active and eat food much higher in fat and sugar (calories) compared to children in the past. It's called 'junk food' and 'fast food' for a reason! Eating too much of it leads to large positive energy balances. As a result, more and more children are carrying excess fat.
Why are today's kids inactive compared to children in the past? Television, video games and the Internet have largely been blamed. The average Canadian child watches about 26 hours of TV per week and spends less than three hours being physically active. Many parents do not realize how little exercise their children get. Part of the problem comes from living in cities and the automation of our society. Physical chores largely do not exist in the city compared to a rural setting. Children must take part in organized or leisure activity to be physically active. Children (through their parents) now have to choose to be active instead of having exercise built into their day.
Being housebound is another problem. Most parents remember spending a great deal of time playing outside when they were kids. This often involved exercise in the form of 'running wild' or games with friends. Certainly, having a television with only two channels and living without a PVR or a computer played a large role. Neighbourhoods were seen as safe places for children to play. Today, parents are concerned when their children are not within sight or earshot. Playing at the playground or on the school field without adult supervision is no longer practical for many of today's youth.
The family itself has also changed dramatically. Many households have two working parents. There are also more single parents. Time and finances are both limited. This means children have less opportunity to get involved in healthy activity. As well, there is less physical education in schools. Canadian schools average only an estimated 60 minutes of physical education per week.
On the other side of the weight gain equation is the number of calories consumed. This is a fast food and junk food generation. Not only is such food high in fat, it has limited nutritional value. If the food is not high fat, it is often high in simple sugars. 'Empty calories' is the term used to describe food high in simple sugars but with little or no nutritional value in the form of vitamins or minerals. Children and adults alike are faced with junk food ads on television, in magazines, on billboards, and even in schools. The major sponsors for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 were a fast food chain and a soft drink company. Younger children are lured to fast food places with the promise of a trinket from a popular movie with the purchase of the kid's meal. Prizes are stashed in cereals high in sugar.
The goal of the multi-billion dollar advertising industry is to sell as much as possible. Unfortunately, in this case, the consumers are children. It is hard for parents not to give in to demands, given the influence of advertising on children. How many jingles or slogans from fast food restaurants or junk food ads can you or your children recite? A recent study found that children as young as three to five years of age are able to recognize brand names.
The high level of obesity in children will significantly affect both individuals and society. An overweight, inactive child who becomes an overweight, inactive adult is more at risk of high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease and low self-esteem. The estimated direct Canadian health care costs related to inactive lifestyles, already in the billions of dollars, is expected to skyrocket. This will further strain a health care system already under great financial stress. The obesity rates mean that this generation of children may actually have a lower life expectancy than their parents.
If this happens, it would be for the first time in our country's history.
Playing video and computer games can mean that kids spend a lot of time sitting. Exergaming, or exercising while gaming, offers a healthier alternative. Various virtual sports and fitness activities, such as boxing, tennis and bowling, are now available. They can be played at home at any time of day, rain or shine. However, kids do not burn as many calories as when taking part in the actual activity. For instance, a 45 kg (100 lb) child playing Wii tennis would burn about 140 calories. Real tennis burns about 300 calories an hour.
Children are not the only Canadians without healthy exercise and eating habits. Many adults have high fat, high energy diets and inactive lifestyles. To make a difference for your child, remember two facts:
If you live an active life, with a focus on healthy lifestyle choices, your children are likely to copy this pattern and carry it into adulthood. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.
A few simple suggestions can go a long way in helping children live healthy lives.