Take a look around your classroom. What do you see? If you're lucky -- if you're very, very lucky -- you see a room full of kids "all in their places with bright, shiny faces." No matter how lucky you are, however, if your class is typical, nearly 15 percent of those bright, shiny faces belong to kids who already are afflicted with a disease that will eventually kill them. That disease is obesity.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, results from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicate that an estimated 13 percent of children ages 6-11 and 14 percent of adolescents ages 12-19 are overweight. In fact, in the last two decades, the number of overweight children and adolescents in the United States has more than doubled -- and the health implications of that increase are staggering.
An article in American Family Physician reported that "obesity in childhood is known to be associated with high cholesterol levels, increased average blood pressure, heart rate, and cardiac output. Hyperinsulinemia and glucose intolerance are nearly universal in morbidly obese children. ... Obese children are at increased risk for orthopedic problems. ... Obese children are much more prone to skin disorders. ... There is a clear association between obesity and low self-esteem."
In addition, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, "between 8 and 45 percent of newly diagnosed cases of childhood diabetes are type 2, non-insulin dependent, associated with obesity. Fewer than 4 percent of childhood diabetes cases in 1990 were type 2; that number has risen to approximately 20 percent, varying from 8 percent to 45 percent, depending on the age of the group studied and the racial/ethnic mix of the group studied. Of the children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, 85 percent are obese. ... [Diabetes] is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States."
Take a look around your classroom. What do you see? Whether you know it or not, you see a lot of sick kids.
Schools cannot rid themselves of the problem of childhood obesity with good intentions and a few well-chosen lessons any more than obese kids can rid themselves of excess weight without the help of their schools.
Look around your school. What do you see?
Up until recently, you probably saw vending machines dispensing high-fat, high-sugar foods with little nutritional value. In past years U.S. schools generated more than $750 million a year in revenues from vending machine sales. That kind of money is tough to live without. So is the revenue from cigarette vending machines, though -- and the health risks of obesity are nearly as devastating as those of smoking.
In a Harvard University study, researchers monitored the consumption of soft drinks and sweetened fruit drinks among Massachusetts schoolchildren. They found that "the odds of becoming obese increased 1.6 times for each additional can or glass of sugar-sweetened soft drink consumed above the daily average." In other words, one extra soft drink a day gives a child a 60 percent greater chance of becoming obese.
Soft drink consumption among 13- to 18-year-olds has increased 80 percent since 1980 -- and even one can of soda makes a difference.
Look around your school. What don't you see?
You probably don't see much evidence of programs designed to reduce students' sedentary lifestyle. According to a Nielsen Media Research report, U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend more than three hours a day watching television and another three to four hours using the Internet and playing video games -- and the more they sit, the heavier they get. Those activities, of course, are generally thought to be the responsibility of parents. The solution to the problem, however, also can be found at school.
In a Stanford University study, researchers provided teachers with an 18-lesson curriculum designed to help third- and fourth-grade students reduce the amount of time they spent watching TV and playing video games. Although no guidance was provided on how the kids should spend the hours not devoted to sedentary activities, students who reduced their television viewing "exhibited significant decreases in obesity regardless of how they spent their re-allocated entertainment hours."
You also probably don't see in your school a strong emphasis on physical education programs. Few educators need medical experts to tell them that "a person gains weight when energy input exceeds energy output" or that "a relatively small imbalance between energy input and output can lead to significant weight gain over time" or that "exercise is necessary to maintain weight loss and to redistribute body fat into muscle." Most schools, however, manage to avoid facing up to the implications to them of that scientific reality. We know that many kids, especially kids who live in dangerous neighborhoods and kids with working parents (and who is left?), do not play outside after school the way children did a generation ago. If they don't get exercise at school, chances are they won't get it at all.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the office of the surgeon general both have recommended daily school-based physical education as the best solution to the growing obesity epidemic among our nation's youths. Yet, in 2002, Illinois was the only state that currently requires daily physical education for students in grades K-12 -- and even that state allows for plenty of exemptions.
At the school level, nationwide, only "8 percent of elementary schools, 6.4 percent of middle/junior high schools, and 5.8 of senior high schools provide daily physical education or its equivalent for the entire school year for students in all grades in the school," according to the School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000. Fewer than half of all schools, the study adds, offer intramural activities or physical activity clubs for students, and more than 25 percent do not even provide regularly scheduled recess for students in elementary grades.
All this, despite the fact that studies indicate that increasing student participation in school-based physical education programs from three to five days a week, increases their fitness level, self-esteem, school attendance, and academic performance and reduces student smoking and drug usage.
According to Dr. William Klish, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, because of the epidemic of obesity, children today have a shorter life expectancy than their parents for the first time in 100 years. "We are in the middle of an epidemic that may have profound health effects on our children, as well as on us," said Klish. "If society does not act now to implement preventive measures, the increase of obesity will not stop."
Look around your classroom and around your school. What do you see? You see -- whether you know it or not -- the growing problem of childhood obesity. You need to see what your school can do to make a difference.