We see more overweight adults today than before. There is no getting around it: Indians are becoming bigger, and sicker, and this trend is just going to get worse. As if this isn’t bad enough, more women are classified as Obese and Overweight (this is based purely on the body mass index), than men.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs extends to our children too.

In recent years, overweight and obese children have become an increasingly common sight.  Many studies conducted indicate that overweight and obesity rates among Indian children and adolescents – affluent or not – are on the rise. We knew this about adults. But children? Why is this happening to our kids? And what can be done to undo this?

What are the causes of childhood obesity?

Lack of sufficient physical activities

Children, more so than adults, need to move. They need to push, pull, walk, run, jump, squat, lift, hang, throw, and much more. Physical activity keeps them physically mobile and strong, mentally agile and sharp. Sadly, they do not get enough opportunities to move and as a result, there is not enough movement in their lives. 

Up until a couple of decades ago, kids got to play. It could be a sport like cricket or football, cycling with friends, or just random running around. They had the time and physical space to move, and had fun doing that.

From school to extra classes to special tuition to coaching to classes for extracurricular activities, their schedules are more packed than most adults! And unless sport or fitness is consciously made a part of that schedule, a child doesn’t get to move at all. 

Sedentary lifestyle leads to a multitude of health problems, mental and physical. Children need the time and space to run around and shed their energy.

Lack of available spaces to play

Even a couple of decades back, children running around and being out in the open doing something active was a common sight. Unfortunately, times have changed, and the current school-aged children don’t get the time or space they need to stay active anymore. 

Cities have grown and kids are robbed of spaces to move. Neighbourhoods, and even schools, don’t come with playgrounds anymore. Schools have become more demanding and kids have packed schedules.

Today’s young resort to couch surfing upon returning from school. Video games have taken the spot of outdoor sports. No matter how engaging they are, video gaming does not provide them with any of the advantages physical activities do. 

This excess of screen time also has a detrimental effect on their health, leading to many more complications. Overweight kids and adolescents often suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and poor quality of life.

Excess food, excess weight

Compounding the effect of not enough movement is the fact that children and adolescents eat more than enough (junk) food. This is because of two reasons – one, it is so easy to procure foods that we and our kids end up eating more than we need or even want. Two, there is so much variety in food now that is tempting them, from the advertisements on the TV and billboards on the streets.

In addition to what they eat at home, kids eat fun things at parties, sleepovers and school events. Chips, cookies, cakes, candy, juices and more are the norm in such occasions and clearly the frequency of such occasions is only increasing year after year. 

Easy availability of sugary drinks and fast food only results in unhealthy weight gain. Combining this with a lack of physical activity is the perfect recipe for disaster.

How to fix this epidemic? 

Because that’s what this problem of childhood obesity is – an epidemic. Unless we take sufficient measures to address childhood obesity and make sustained efforts to arrest and turn the situation around, we will end up with an increasingly unhealthy population choking itself with lifestyle diseases.

Overweight young children are at an increased risk of developing high cholesterol, chronic diseases, heart disease, liver disease – even sleep apnea!  How simple would it be if these medical conditions can be mitigated at the source?

Childhood obesity is a precursor to lifestyle diseases in adults. Obese children lead to obese adolescents, lead to obese adults.

We need to break this chain.

First, less sedentary behaviour, more movement

This also means less video games, more outdoor play. But how to keep them moving when the urban spaces are fast losing safe play areas? Time was, every neighbourhood had an open ground that the whole family could use. Though these have been swallowed up, other creative solutions have cropped up.

Many neighbourhood clubs have sports facilities that whole families can use. In the recent past, a number of organisations opening up erstwhile ‘dead spaces’ (spaces that aren’t in use all the time) for the use of the general public have come up. Costing less than club memberships, which also tend to be somewhat exclusive, these offer a more cost-effective solution to play. 

Other than these set play times, we also need to make natural movement a part of their everyday life. Encourage them to walk more – to the local shops, to their friends’ homes, up and down the stairs. 

Healthy lifestyle for the whole family

Your child needs a good role model. There is no point in preaching a healthy diet and lifestyle to our youngsters if we aren’t going to walk the walk. This means more family time, and more activities for everyone to get stuck into. 

Preface your easy Sunday breakfasts with a slow cycle around the neighbourhood. If going to the beach, see if you can join in an Ultimate frisbee pickup game. Do not fill your kitchen cupboards with sugary drinks and heavily processed foods – more nutritious foods, fewer sports drinks, and processed junk is the name of the game. 

Healthy eating

This is a total game-changer. When you start eating healthy as a family, you will be setting up your children toward a healthier life path. You will also help yourself by staving off cardiovascular disease or blood pressure problems, thanks to switching to a healthier lifestyle. 

One easy way to accomplish this is to get the whole family involved in cooking healthy meals. Learning to prepare healthy meals is an essential life skill and the sooner our children learn this, the better they will be. 

If you have the space, see if you can grow your own greens or vegetables. Most children only need a little encouragement to get dirty – growing their own food will also encourage them to eat more fresh vegetables and greens. 

Never forget: healthy kids are happy kids.

It should come to you as no surprise that the prevalence of obesity has doubled since 1980 in more than 70 countries and has increased in most other nations. Although the prevalence of obesity among children has been lower than among adults, the rate of increase in childhood obesity in many countries was greater than that of adults. 

If we want the next generation to enjoy better health than we did, we need to act now before it is too late. By inculcating healthier habits in them in their early childhood years, we can set them up for a better life.

At The Quad, we have trained children as young as 8, getting them interested in jumping, climbing, crawling, playing team sports, and falling in love with movement. If you would like nutrition support or physical education guidance for your family, get in touch with us today. Our team of experts will guide you in making effective lifestyle changes for the whole family.

Originally written by Raj Ganpath and published in September 2017

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