Let’s start with the good news…
Dr. Deb Galuska has a really long title.
That’s not the good news.
Dr. Deb Galuska is the Associate Director of Science, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the Center for Disease Control.
Still not the good news.
The good news is that she recently said, “Across the whole spectrum of kids what we’re seeing…is a slowing down and stabilization (of obesity rates)” (1).
That’s good news.
Well, presumably. Not exactly a victory but at least the trend lines of childhood obesity aren’t getting worse. Which is more than we could say 5 years ago. Evidence that initiatives like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Active Schools have been successful at calling attention to our national crisis. They’ve sparked a conversation, which is awesome. And they’re offering solutions, which is even more awesome.
But we have to be careful, because even if the story is not getting worse, it remains awfully bleak:
- Childhood obesity is 3 times higher than when our parents were kids (2).
- One in three children in the United States are overweight or obese (3). One in three.
- Kids now spend more than 7.5 hours per day in front of a screen (4). (What the WHAT?)
Here’s the real clincher…
- Two out of three kids aren’t moving enough (5).
Let me say that again. Two out of three kids in the United States are not meeting the national recommendation of at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
Inactivity has reached epidemic proportions in America. There is still much work to be done.
As frightening as the statistics are, they make sense.
Our schools are being handed a difficult task. Prepping student for our globally competitive marketplace, academic pressure is at all all time high. Policy demands have led to increased classroom time for standardized testing. Combined with teacher layoffs, lack of equipment, and anemic funding, phys ed is often the first class on the cutting blocks.
Old school policy makers look at education like a zero-sum game where physical education takes a backseat to “core curriculum” classes like math and science. After all, the more time kids spend in gym class, they claim, the less time they’re studying statistics and biology. But, of course, old school creed is so…old school. The new school approach, reinforced by our more complete understanding of statistics and biology, shows a strong correlation between physical activity and academic success. Our mental and physical development, it turns out, aren’t mutually exclusive (6). Plenty of studies prove that even brief bouts of exercise can have a profound effect on information processing and memory function (6, 7, 8, 9, all of google).
It makes sense. Our brain responds to physical activity just like all of the other muscles in our body. Physical activity creates a happy, healthy, oxygen rich, growth inducing environment and our brain benefits as much as our biceps. The truth is more holistic than our out dated policies: what is good for the body is also good for the test scores.
If improved cognitive function isn’t enough, the World Health Organization has also proven that physical activity can help prevent risky behaviors like smoking, drug & alcohol use, unhealthy eating, violence, antisocial behaviors, and pregnancy. The report concludes “There is a clear consensus that children and youth should be involved in physical activity on a regular basis, and that teaching/reward systems should encourage active participation and enjoyment by all students, not just the highly skilled” (10).
And then there’s the financial cost of our short-sightedness. Obesity and the lack of physical activity is crushing our health care system and it’s only getting worse. It is estimated that obesity will cost the United States $344 billion in medical-related expenses by 2018 (11). To put that number in perspective, we saved about $3 billion in the 2013 budget cuts for all of education in the United States (12). We’re saving pennies on phys ed to spend dollars on the consequences.
It is scary to face this reality when we all seem to agree that kids deserve to be active. Ninety-five % (!) of parents think that daily physical activity helps children do better academically and should be part of a school curriculum for all students in grades K-12 (11). And the experts are screaming as well – kids need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day – not necessarily all at once, cause that’s not how kids move, but cumulatively (6). Movement is not a nicety, it’s a necessity.
When it comes to physical activity for our kids, it feels like our policies don’t align with our priorities.
It’s hard to imagine a healthier future without reimagining the way we educate our next generation about physical activity. We have to do a better job. While childhood obesity is a complex issue, childhood inactivity is straightforward. If we don’t continue to make noise around the issue and make movement a priority, we’re going to watch our nation become paralyzed by its own weight.
So what’s on the agenda?
- We have to continue to assert physical education as a cornerstone of childhood development. ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) – signed by President Obama on December 10th, 2015 was a big victory – acknowledging phys ed as part of a student’s “well-rounded” education. The bill uses the term “well-rounded education” to replace the term “core subjects” that was used in previous Elementary and Secondary Education Act proposals. ESSA is a big win because school districts will now have the opportunity to utilize federal funds for physical education programs — something that was limited under No Child Left Behind. But school districts still have to apply for funding and we, as students, parents, and community members have to continue to make it known that this is a meaningful priority. (14)
- We have to continue to get organized. Federal and state government, as well as local school systems need to come up with common language, data systems, and minimum requirements. We’re stronger together. We can share resources, policies, and solutions. Like our body and brain, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
- We have to continue to come up with creative ways to make sure physical education is an inclusive environment. The trick is to challenge high achievers while simultaneously teaching all students that physical activity is essential to an awesome life. All bodies have to move. And the better we’re able to move, the better we’ve able to live. Nike likes to say, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” All kids are athletes and need to be educated accordingly.
- As awareness of and demand for childhood activity increases, there is big business opportunity for companies to step into the space with technology that makes physical activity fun and accessible. This would also allow us to monitor physical activity in more efficient ways which could be an effective call-to-action for state and national funding. Our obsession with technology isn’t going anywhere. While some might like to point to it as part of the problem, the truth is, it can also be part of the solution.
What Can You Do To Help Right Now??
Let’s Move! Active Schools is a one-stop shop for vetted and evidence-based info. Check out https://myactiveschool.letsmoveschools.org to become a champion of your local school (which is basically like being a superhero.) You can assess how much your school is moving and get a customized Action Plan to step up your game.
- National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2011: With Special Features on Socioeconomic Status and Health [pdf 9.4M]. Hyattsville, MD; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012.
- Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association 2014;311(8):806-814.
- National Association for Sport and Physical Education. The Fitness Equation: Physical Activity + Balanced Diet = Fit Kids. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 1999.