Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Health Angle: More Quality Playgrounds, Less Childhood Obesity

The news these days is full of accounts based on alarming statistics regarding American kids' sinking levels of physical fitness and correspondingly skyrocketing obesity rates. The best are the CDC figures -- exponentially increasing numbers of kids are obese; annual health costs resulting from obesity total billions of dollars and shorter life expectancies.

"Childhood Obesity" is now a common form of medical speak for the at least pudgy, if not downright health-threatening condition that continues to scream for awareness from parents, educators and anyone who cares about young people.

One very notable person who fits that description is the First Lady. In April Michelle Obama debuted the "Let's Move" campaign to challenge poor diet and lack of exercise.

On the dietary front, the World Health Organization has taken aim at junk food. The United Nations' health advocate comprised of 193 member states points to the global gain in cases of childhood obesity and has called for restrictions in the marketing and advertising of foods high fat, sugar or salt.

Focus is finally now emphatically being placed on how the routines that dictate school and home life in many ways promote sloth and bad eating habits. U.S. News and World Report points to a good example in Missouri of an encouraging start toward reducing desk time and undue weight gain.

It's called the Active and Healthy Schools Program, in which an elementary school incorporates short breaks throughout the day to emphasize movement.

In addition to activity breaks, students and faculty wear pedometers to fuel competition among students and teachers and increase the number of their steps," the magazine reports. "Activity zones are placed throughout playgrounds to engage students in different activities, including hula-hoop, jump-rope and games. Signs and pictures with healthy messages about nutrition and activity are displayed in classrooms and throughout the school."

Playgrounds are the key, as the operative word from the above quote indicates. There's definitely no better place for "activity zones."

If it seems like a no-brainer, well, it is. Access and more importantly, the desire to go to appealing recreation facilities are what's needed if kids are going to learn and make active, physically fit lifestyles their reality.

Despite the apparent obviousness of it all, science has reams of research confirming how important play facilities are in minimizing childhood obesity. A 2007 inquiry by the RAND Corporation -- "Weekend Schoolyard Accessibility, Physical Activity, and Obesity: The Trial of Activity in Adolescent Girls (TAAG) Study" -- is one of many on this subject.

"Girls who lived near locked schools tended to be heavier, and neighborhoods with locked schools were disproportionately poor and had larger minority populations," Molly M. Scott, the study's lead author, told Medical News Today. "These neighborhoods, where risk of obesity is high and public parks and playgrounds are often lacking, could benefit from convenient and safe places for physical activity. And making schools accessible doesn't require construction. It's a policy change."

Accessible, well designed playgrounds everywhere would definitely be nice. It's crucial to make these places as familiar and safe as possible for kids. Otherwise they won't form the all-important intellectual as well as emotional connections that are key to establishing behavior patterns.

Health strategist and educator Carol Torgan, Ph.D., provides a useful statistical review of major academic studies that have been done on the impact physical activity has on obesity numbers:

"For U.S. children ages 10-17, 35.0% have no access to recreation or community centers; 26.7% have no neighborhood access to sidewalks or walking paths; and 19.2% have no access to parks or playgrounds...

"Children living in neighborhoods with no access to sidewalks or walking paths, parks or playgrounds, and recreation or community centers, have 32%, 26% and 20% higher adjusted odds of obesity than children in neighborhoods with access to these amenities, respectively."

The facts are as clear as can be. Without greater emphasis on open space and quality playgrounds, kids are going to keep getting fatter at pandemic proportions.

Kids with the opportunity to live healthy lives fueled by good food and lots of chances to exercise without question are far more likely to excel in their studies and develop well socially.

It's time to stop reading academic tealeaves and start taking action toward better recreation facilities that will draw children away from the video game console, TV show filler and junk food.