Sunday, 7 October 2012

Uphill Into the Wind Both Ways

We all know the story.  An older person will tell a younger audience how tough they had it back in the old days. 'When I was young", they'll say "We had to walk three miles to school, uphill and into the wind, both ways". Sometimes, just for emphasis, extras details are included, like how they were barefoot and slogging through three feet of snow as well!  "It built character" the older person invariably concludes. Young people chuckle and shake their heads sadly. The trouble is, its starting to look like the older persons have a point! Increasingly we seem to live in an age of distracted, over fed and under exercised children. While not an advocate of sending under dressed school children out to walk marathons in blizzards, it does strike me that today's kids do not take enough steps to ensure their own fitness.

Want some evidence to back up this claim? Stop by an elementary school just before the start or end of the day and count the number of vehicles stopping by to pick up or drop off children. School boards often hear from principals or parent groups looking for support for plans to ease traffic flow or increase the size of parking lots. "Its a safety issue" the board will hear. "The current set up is not adequate for the demand. Its unsafe. A child could get run over". On all counts they are correct, but perhaps not in the way that they hope. Schools are not set up to accommodate lots of cars because in the past students either walked to school or arrived by school bus.  The lack of safety from too many drivers is easy to see, but there is another bigger danger in play - with increased screen and seat time our children are getting fat!

The CBC recently reported that as many as one third of Canadian children between the ages of 5 and 17 are now obese. The numbers jump to two thirds when considering overweight adults. The problem is the result of the collision of several trends. High calorie fast foods are cheap, readily available and omnipresent in popular culture. At the same time technology has provided a plethora of screens to distract us. Besides the traditional outlets of tv and movies, video gaming, texting, facebooking, social media, smart phone apps, ipods, ipads, tablets, e-readers, kobos and other screens now draw our kids' attention. While some of these apps are mobile, the majority are sedentary pursuits easily combined with snacking. Screens plus sitting plus snack foods quickly adds up to plus sized children.

At the same time as we are getting bigger, we are also becoming less aware of the changes. In a recent Globe and Mail feature, reporter Carly Weeks suggests that fat has become the new normal. Weeks points out that few parents ever recognize their child has a serious weight issue, even if the child is obese. A study in the Canadian Family Physician Journal found 63 per cent of parents with overweight children said their child’s weight was normal; 63 per cent of parents of obese children classified them as overweight. 

Schools can be part of the solution, but programs like daily physical activity (DPA), quality physical education programs and classes to educate students about proper nutrition and exercise can only go so far. Solutions have to be found closer to home too.  Dr. Mark  Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, says possible solutions are as simple as making neighborhoods more walkable so that children can get to school under their own power rather than in the passenger seat of a car.  Who knows? If more families take up the challenge and add steps to their children's routines, in future maybe those children will be able to tell their own stories about how they too had to walk to school up hill and into the wind both ways!




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