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Summertime and Childhood Obesity

September 21, 2010

Chinese Buddha

As we head into autumn, let’s take a moment for summertime nostalgia, and for reflection on a problem that can increasingly be called worldwide. For instance, whatever else we may or may not have in common with China, both countries unquestionably face an increasing childhood obesity problem. In a China Daily story by Yang Yijun and Wang Hongyi, we learn that more than a third of Shanghai’s school-age kids are overweight or obese. And… it gets worse in the summer.

Over 3,000 students were surveyed, with the conclusion that about 15% qualified as overweight, and 21% came under the obese classification. Dr. Feng Yi of the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center noted:

Many children put on weight during the summer holiday, as they often keep late hours and rarely do sports during the holidays.

The obesity problem in general is attributed by Chinese specialists to “unhealthy eating and living habits, infant overfeeding and doting parents.” Ice cream and sweet drinks are particular culprits in the unhealthy eating, as well as snacking in general. Although the article doesn’t mention it, we suspect that China’s one-child-per-family policy has something to do with it. When there is only one offspring, overindulgence is hard to avoid.

The most unique feature of Dr. Pretlow’s Weigh2Rock website is the collection of poll results gathered from the actual kids in all age groups, who share their thoughts and experiences with childhood obesity. Poll # 95’s question was, “Do you tend to gain weight or lose weight during the summer?”

Out of 50 kids who responded, 58% said “gain,” 32% of kids said “lose,” and 10% said “stay the same.” (Incidentally, 58% also report being happier in the summer, replying to another question in the same poll.) Let’s look at their comments, the more-than-half who gain weight in the summer.

A 14-year-old girl says that summertime means more time spent with the family, and that’s depressing, and, as we know, depression leads to emotional eating. A 12-year-old says she gains weight in the summer because of not having Physical Education classes to keep her in shape, and another girl the same age also cites the vacation-time lack of exercise, which is required at school.

Others talk about boredom, sitting around, nothing to do, doing nothing. Sometimes even doing something doesn’t help. An 18-year-old who lives in the country takes long-distance summer school courses, and says,

Usually, when I do homework and study after regular school, it’s not for very long, so I’ve made a habit of snacking while I do it. But, during summer courses, I’m doing work at home for hours during the day! And I find without my ‘snack’ I can’t focus. So I end up eating way more during the summer than I do for the rest of the year.

Dr. Pretlow finds the results of the poll compelling, and adds that the lack of structure in the summer leaves kids feeling antsy and bored, so they eat to cope with those feelings. Thinking about solutions, he says,

It thus appears that we need to come up with physical activities that are quite fun, i.e. improve the mood of the kids rather than just ‘getting them moving,’ which can be drudgery for kids.

That pinpoints one of the areas that need to be explored. Is it even possible for adults to think up stuff that kids will want to do? Well, yes, and the waterpark is a great example. What kid wouldn’t want to spend every summer day there, having fun and getting exercise? It’s too bad such recreation is so expensive. A prescription for regular swimming and waterpark romping is not easily filled by most kids.

Unfortunately, when kids themselves come up with fun activities that improve their moods, society quickly steps in to quash the motion. Remember raves? Dancing all night can keep a person slim. If fighting teen obesity were the absolute first priority, no rave would ever have been shut down. Or skateboarding. How many obese skateboarders do we see? On the other hand, society does need to protect regular people from the hazard of being knocked over by the heedless kids on wheels. It’s all a balancing act.

Going back to a couple of our recent posts, Michael Prager, author of Fat Boy Thin Man, spent three summers at fat camp, and had always gained back whatever weight he had shed. Mrs. Q, the school lunch reviewer, who does her research by eating whatever is served to her students, recently wrote,

Frankly, I’m not looking forward to eating the lunches again.… I have a sensitive system. My body has been happy all summer long.

Note from Dr. Pretlow on an upcoming development:

Unfortunately, the polls currently aren’t as productive as in the past, due to the fact that kids’ attention has been diverted elsewhere these days, texting, Facebook, smartphone apps.  We’re developing an iPhone app for overweight kids.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Shanghai children face obesity problem,” China Daily, 09/07/10
Source: “Poll # 95,” Weigh2Rock.com
Image by TheLawleys, used under its Creative Commons license.

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