Obesity is increasingly common throughout the world. It has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and developed countries, and is even increasing in developing nations. In Asian countries, where the problem used to be atypical, obesity is becoming more prevalent. In the United States, 27% of adults are obese and an additional 34% are overweight. Over the past 30 years, childhood and juvenile obesity in the United States and the United Kingdom has grown from an individual health problem to a national crisis.
In New York City alone, 43% of public elementary school students are overweight (25 -29.9 excess pounds). Young people from low-income communities and communities of color are especially affected - more than 30% of NYC’s Latino children and over 20% of African American children are obese (30 and above pound excess). These youngsters lack ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables; a startling 76% of NYC’s youth do not get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. In fact, on any given day, one out of five American children eats less than one serving of vegetables and 45% eats no fruit.
Physical activity, which is so important to health and well-being, has been decreasing for decades. According to Building “Generation Play”: Addressing the Crisis of Inactivity Among America's Children, a 2007 report by Stanford University school of Medicine, “One recent national survey has found that almost two-thirds of high school students are not meeting the recommended level of physical activity. Another study found that 10- to 16-year-olds are engaged in vigorous activity only 12.6 minutes per day. In contrast, they spend an average of 10.4 of their waking hours relatively motionless. Another clear finding is that today’s children spend much of their time engaged in sedentary activities. One recent study among 8-18 year olds found that they spend 6.5 hours per day with personal use media (including TV, DVDs, computers, radio and CDs), among which a daily average of 4 hours is spent watching TV, DVDs, or videos.”
The situation is so bleak that researchers predict this may be the first generation to die at a younger age than their parents due to health issues related to unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise. Pediatric obesity may shorten life expectancy in the United States by two to five years by midcentury —an effect equal to that of all cancers combined.
Research shows that there are also serious psychosocial complications, as obese children tend to be isolated and have high rates of disordered eating, anxiety and depression. When they reach adulthood, these individuals are less likely than their thinner counterparts to complete college and are more likely to live in poverty.
Parents and schools, as the key forces for change in children's behaviors, have a critical role to play in conquering this epidemic and preventing the fulfillment of the prophecy. Some advocates even propose that schools in the United States should uphold standards related to healthy eating and physical activity, just as they are accountable for academic standards. Schools around the country and abroad are trying to meet the challenge and help reverse course.
In 2003, The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) launched a number of programs aimed at preventing childhood obesity in our schools and community centers. The programs come together under the umbrella of Go!Healthy, a comprehensive wellness and healthy eating initiative that engages children from birth. The program has a three-fold strategy: educate students, parents and staff about healthy eating and wellness; make healthy choices easy by providing delicious and nutritious food options within our sites; and engage students, parents and staff in advocacy opportunities so they can become champions for healthy communities.
There is no quick fix. Controlling the obesity epidemic will take a long-term, all-hands-on-deck approach. There are many environmental factors that have contributed to creating the so-called “Sedentary Generation.” Close collaboration between families, schools, physicians, communities and government is needed to help all children, no matter their background, live longer and healthier lives. Community schools in this country and abroad have taken the challenge seriously. In this issue of Partnership Press we profile our Go! Healthy program, as well as what two other U.S. initiatives and a private-public partnership in Scotland are doing to help counteract the gloomy health future of this generation.