Kids and youth are eating worse and exercising less. Something has got to change.

In his 29 years as a physical education teacher, David Lively has seen "big" changes in his students. Frightening ones.

"I set my kids up for 30 minutes of activity and they’re red-faced and sweating. That never used to be," he says matter-of-factly. "They’re not used to it. My job, my priority, is to get them active."

It’s a tough bill to fill. Lively, who teaches at Holy Cross Elementary in St. John’s, Nfld., has each student for just two 30-minute gym classes a week, if that. He says he doesn’t have time to preach lifestyle changes: he just wants them moving.

People like Lively are in a position to see, first-hand, the declining health of children today. And, increasingly, they feel their hands are tied: their classes are being cut, gym time is being phased out, and junk food–once banned from many elementary schools–is becoming an everyday staple for students.

Teachers who spend their careers trying to get children into a healthy lifestyle are frustrated by the state of their students’ well-being–physical, mental and social. If they’re upset, we should all sit up and take note.

The new sedentary child hood–supported by technology, nutrient-deficient foods, fast and bad-fat foods, media, flashy ads and busy parents–is a major societal issue and, unfortunately, probably won’t change anytime soon.

But change must come.

Two Steps Back

Change is already happening quickly–but in the wrong direction.

Although it confirmed what we already knew, the study published last April in the International Journal of Obesity was fodder for a media frenzy. Its findings? Kids these days are more likely to be overweight, and less likely to be eating healthy than ever before. And the numbers are getting steadily, frighteningly worse.

According to this study, 38 percent of seven- and eight-year-old Canadian boys are overweight (that figure is three times what it was two decades ago). Thirty-three percent of girls in this age group are overweight.

Overall, the number of overweight boys increased from 15 percent in 1981 to 29 percent in 1996. Among girls, it increased from 15 percent to close to 24 percent. Obesity rates more than doubled in that time: from five percent to 14 percent in boys and 12 percent in girls. (Children measuring four-feet/1.2-metres tall are considered overweight if they weigh more than 82 pounds/37 kilograms and obese if they weigh more than 98 pounds/45 kg.)

The problem is not unique to Canada, though we happen to be at the top of the list.

The study’s lead researcher, Mark Tremblay, has been working on this topic for years, and his patience is wearing thin.

Speaking from his office as dean of kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan, he recently remarked, "We have enough information to tell us we should be thinking about this pretty seriously–because some of the problems will be irreversible from this generation. (These children will) develop disorders and end up on medication before they know it."

"There’s no doubt the trend is getting worse. It’s like driving a semi-trailer–you just don’t stop it and turn it on a dime. We’re going the wrong way on a one-way street."

And it’s a costly road to head down. Being overweight or obese is linked to a long list of illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, asthma and mood disorders. Even if the disorders don’t show up until adulthood, they have their roots in youth. Lifelong habits are instilled in childhood.

For example, US data estimate diabetes will increase by 105 percent over the next five decades (that’s 29 million Americans, up from 11 million). Dr. Jack Holland, spokesman for the Canadian Pediatric Society, believes the trend will be similar in Canada. Obesity, he adds, is "rising in epidemic proportions."

He places the blame squarely on inactivity.

Peter Katzmarzyk, an epidemiologist at York University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Science, estimates that if physical activity was increased by just 10 per cent, health-care spending would be cut by $150 million a year.

If children picked up a few good eating habits, imagine how that number would quickly multiply.

Situation Critical

"Now over half of Canadian children and youth are not active enough for optimal growth and health," says Morena Reece, physical activity expert and co-chair of a three-year project by Health Canada to promote physical activity in kids. "We realized it was a crisis and it’s going to build," she adds. Health Canada responded by developing a new set of guidelines that it hopes will become as prevalent with educators and health-care professionals as Canada’s food guide.

The guidelines outline how much physical activity youth and children should have. Aimed at inactive children, they contain tips and goals for increasing active time, and reducing inactive time. (Visit hc-sc.gc.ca/hppb/paguide/ youth.html for a copy of Canada’s Physical Activity Guide for both youth and children.)

But even as Health Canada guidelines are being released, and as more studies are published and more experts come forward, the problem continues to worsen.

Physical education teachers across the country are fighting to keep their classes, and wishing for more. They know what’s needed, as we all should–just as we should take their lead and get kids out and about. As Sharon Moores, PE specialist at Newtown Elementary in St. John’s says, "physical education has to be valued by society. It pays for itself in the long term–healthy bodies, healthy minds."

She doesn’t just mean gym classes. Play time away from the computer and television are also important. "What we’ve got is minimal. The ultimate goal is daily physical activity."

Follow The Leaders

Morena Reece joins other experts in pointing out what should be common sense, but is not acted upon enough: Parents and teachers have a huge role in encouraging kids and youth to adopt a healthy lifestyle. "Especially when you look at the education system, we’ve got a captive audience there. Let’s use these guidelines and actually teach the kids."

Just as importantly, kids have got to start eating well. "The junk food/fast food era is upon us," Reece adds. "The consumption of soft drinks has multiplied so rapidly we can’t keep up."

"All this is setting a bad foundation for adulthood, we’re going to be more unhealthy–which is going to burden the system, let alone the person’s quality of life."

The steps don’t have to be huge, but they have to be taken. Start walking to school. Go for a family walk on the weekend. Try a new sport. Take the stairs. Don’t drink pop with lunch. Pack a brown bag for kids to take to school most days instead of handing over lunch money. Simple changes add up to big ones.

Keeping children healthy is a family affair. Encouraging an active lifestyle and good eating habits helps to keep children trim and gives them an excellent foundation for lifelong health.

And The Kids Say...

Ten-year-old Andrew sits on a bench beside his elementary school playground, swinging his feet back and forth. It’s lunch time and he’s been told he has to go outside and play. He’s OK with that, he says, but he doesn’t feel like running around with the others.

Andrew won’t tell his weight, but he admits he’s 30 pounds heavier than his best friend. He lists his favourite foods as chicken fingers, fries and pizza. He doesn’t think he eats more than his buddies.

Andrew dreads gym classes; he’s glad there’s only two a week. He says they’re "no fun" because he’s "no good at any sports."

After school, Andrew says he’ll go home and play PlayStation until supper. He might play after supper, too, if he’s allowed.

His older brother plays hockey. Andrew goes to watch sometimes, but says he’d rather play NHL 2000 in his living room.

"I’m good at the computer, and the games, one of the best in my class," he says proudly.

But at what cost?

"I get teased about being chubby, being a fatty, some guys call me stupid names," he says. "But I’ve got friends who don’t do that. My mom says I’ll grow out of it. Not everyone has to play hockey like my brother."

Andrew’s Sports Day is next week. He looks down as he says he wishes he could stay home.

Trina is 13. She’s 5’3" and 160 pounds. She doesn’t mind telling her weight, as long as her real name isn’t printed. She doesn’t mind saying, either, that she wishes she’d look good in some of the clothes her classmates wear.

On this day, she’s wearing a baggy hooded sweatshirt and jeans usually worn by those carrying skateboards.

Trina doesn’t like any sports except swimming. But she always wears a t-shirt when she heads to the beach.

"Sometimes I try to diet," she says. "One time I went a week without junk food. But then my friends wanted to go to the store for pizza. And we had a sleepover and made cookies. I’ll try again."

Trina shrugs. "I’m used to being heavy, it’s just the way I am. I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be little...but people know me and no one makes fun of me like they used to."

Soft Drinks Tip The Scales

Next time your child "supersizes" or goes for a Big Gulp, consider this: A recent two-year study published in The Lancet found that increased soft drink consumption during childhood correlated directly with obesity.

Slow and consistent weight gain over several years is the typical pattern that occurs in obese children, and soft drinks are a prime culprit. In 2000, the average Canadian man, woman and child took in 113 litres of soft drinks per year (up from 95 litres in 1989)–close to one can of sugar-filled pop a day. According to Dr. Julian Whitaker, founder of the Whitaker Wellness Institute in Newport Beach, Calif., children drink soft drinks at a ridiculously early age–20 percent of toddlers and 50 percent by age six. By the time they’re teenagers, they can down up to one litre a day.

Soft drinks, including Kool-Aid and other "fruit" drinks, provide empty calories. A child who chugs a bottle of cola takes in 150 calories but will still feel hungry and is likely to eat 150 calories more at dinner–extra calories that can translate into a weight gain of 15 pounds (33 kg) over the year. The good news is, giving up that daily pop can result in a weight loss of 15 pounds. Lose the soft drink habit and you’ll most likely lose weight! Write a letter to your child’s school asking them to get rid of campus pop machines and you’ll be helping others, too!

Source: mercola.com; dr.whitaker.com; Statistics Canada, statcan.ca

How The Numbers Add Up

According to a recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the incidence of overweight boys increased by 92 percent and of girls by 57 percent from 1981 to 1996. In 1981, 15 percent of children were overweight and five percent were obese. By 1996, 29 percent of boys and close to 24 percent of girls were overweight, and 13.5 percent of boys and 12 percent of girls were obese.

Children are considered overweight if their body mass index (BMI) is 25 or over and obese if their BMI is 30 and over. To calculate your body mass index (BMI), visit cdc.gov/, search for BMI calculations and enter your height and weight.

Source: Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2000;163(11).

Fat Facts for Kids

The probability of having an obese child rises from less than 10 percent if both parents are normal weight, to 40 percent if one parent is obese, to 80 percent if both parents are obese. While the reasons for childhood obesity seems to be a complex mix of genetic and lifestyle factors, inactivity and poor food choices are two main culprits. On the other hand, statistics show that 80 to 85 percent of those who are overweight when they are young remain overweight as adults.

Source: National Institute of Nutrition, nin.ca; Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, cflri.ca

About the Author

Former alive assistant editor and a natural health enthusiast, Stephanie Porter is a reporter, health columnist and freelance writer in St. Johnâ??s, NF.