We Wonder Why Youth are Obese?

This week I heard two stories about active transport for school children that made me shake my head, one in a good way and one bad.

Graph from Huffpost.com 9/30/09 "Cycling or Walking to School Will Not Be Tolerated!"

First, it is no secret that an alarming (and perhaps increasing, although some data indicate the trend is flattening) number of children and youth are overweight or obese. Based on 2008 CDC data, about 33% of youth and children obese. Obese youth are more likely to be inactive, and inactivity in childhood leads to about a 90% likelihood of inactivity throughout the lifespan. Inactivity leads to increased likelihood of chronic and acute health conditions. Therefore it is critical to quality of life, health and well-being that children be physically active, are encouraged to do so, and like it.

So when I was talking to a relative, and she said her children (now 13 & 15) are FORBIDDEN by the school administration to bike to school even if she biked to/from school with her kids, I could not believe it! As someone who biked to school as a kid and currently bikes to work when weather permits, I cannot imagine being actively discouraged from biking. Shouldn’t one be able to bike to school/work if he/she chooses!? Isn’t this the parents’ decision, not school administrators?

I began asking other parents if this were true in their school districts–the answer was yes! I found a May 2, 2012 story on NPR titled “What’s Lost When Kids Don’t Ride Bikes To School” in which it was reported the number of students who walk or ride their bikes to school has dropped from 48% in 1969 to just 13% in 2009. The main reason stated for the rule is safety, which is outlined in a great book titled Free Range Kids: How to Raise Self-Reliant, Safe Kids.

The second story is from a conversation I had with a friend who teaches physical education in elementary school. I asked her about the “no biking to school rule” (confirmed), but she also told me about another active transport initiative. At her school every Friday she picks up about 30 kids on the “Walking School Bus. Brilliant! She said it is growing in popularity and the kids love it. What a simple way to solve the physical activity and safety issue.

In an era where childhood and youth obesity is an public health issue, daily required Physical Education in our schools is a rarity, yet data indicates physical activity increases cognitive function and therefore academic achievement, making it possible for children to actively transport themselves to school seems like a great solution to many issues.

To learn more, read the brief by the Active Living Research arm of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation that summarizes the research and provides recommendations for policies that increase active transport–“A substantial body of research shows that certain aspects of the transportation infrastructure—public transit, greenways and trails, sidewalks and safe street crossings near schools, bicycle paths, traffic–calming devices, and sidewalks that connect schools and homes to destinations—are associated with more walking and bicycling, greater physical activity and lower obesity rates.”

CDC  Overweight is defined as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of these factors.3 Obesity is defined as having excess body fat.

Sport Parent Education: Creating a Tipping Point

As part of my work, I do quite a few sport parent workshops (read my previous blogs about sport parents here). The purpose of the workshops is to share evidence-based information with sport parents, so a positive climate for youth athletes is more likely to be created.

I also conduct research on the topic of sport parents. One of our lines of research is examining the causes of what makes sports parents angry, and how the toxic climate and background anger created on youth sport sidelines affects children.

Almost a year ago in early 2010, I wrote and was interviewed about and  a local Minnesota sport parent who  assaulted a youth basketball commissioner following an in-house game played by sixth graders.

Unfortunately less than a year later, two more episodes of egregious sport parent behavior have again occurred in Minnesota. In the first, a father of a middle school boy punched his son after poor play in a basketball game. In the second, another father made terroristic threats and put a youth hockey coach in a choke hold after a disagreement with the coach following his 12 year old son’s hockey practice. (allegedly his son got into a fight with an opposing player, and used his hockey stick as a baseball bat, so the coach broke the fight up and scolded both players, of which the father took offense). Interestingly and related to this story is based on research, when children witness or hear their parents being violent or abusive, the children are more likely to act in similar ways.

In a series of studies I did with colleagues while at Notre Dame working in the Center for Sport and Character, we found that kids who perceived a high rate of background anger (parents yelling and screaming frequently at refs, coaches, other parents, and players), were more likely to report acting in unsportsmanlike ways on the field. Tree…Apple.  We can do better.

If we want youth sports to be a place where all kids can have the opportunity to have fun, learn skills, develop, make friends and learn life lessons while striving to win, the adults have to get it right. Sport parent education is a great step in creating a tipping point, and making positive change happen. It may not prevent the three egregious type events reported above, but it might. Educational efforts will certainly help a critical mass of sport parents, most of who want to do the right thing but have no clue what that looks like and why it matters for their children, get closer to getting it right. Once parents see youth sport from the perspective of their kids coupled with evidence, rather than their own lens…change is possible, and evidence-based educational programs accomplish this goal.

Youth athletic associations, clubs, school systems have to commit the time and resources to educational efforts or else real change will not occur. The tipping point will not occur without it. No Code of Conduct, banner, sign, Public Service Announcement, parent meeting, rule or policy will affect real change until the culture of youth sport and norms of sport parent behavior changes…and that does not happen without education.

What is more important, investing in: a) educational programming that helps create a positive climate for kids while striving to win, and gets parents on the same page in that goal, or b) doing damage control, prosecuting or defending lawsuits as a result of bad parent behavior? If your answer is “B” you will also have to invest and deal with the traumatic aftermath of children who are targets of, or are witness to, egregious sport parent behavior.

Investment of time and money reflects personal and organizational values. What does your organization value? Can you do better? Do you feel responsible for making it better for all kids?

Helping Lead the U.S. to Better Health?

health appleFor those who may not know, here in the U.S. we have a President’s Council for Physical Fitness and Sport. This group according to the government website “is an advisory committee of volunteer citizens who advise the President through the Secretary of Health and Human Services about physical activity, fitness, and sports in America.” Many of my Kinesiology colleagues have served on the PCPFS council and its Science Board. It is an honor to be asked to serve this prestigious group. The PCPFS puts out many informative publications, research digests and other pieces that can be downloaded free on the PCPFS website.

Historically, the Executive Director is someone who is well respected and academically trained in sport science yet understands how to apply and implement research-based best practices to improve the health, nutrition and well being. President Obama has recently named the new Executive Director: Sergio Rojas (for his bio click here and here). No disrespect to Mr. Rojas, but is he qualified? With a BA in Psychology from Loyola, I couldn’t help but think this rings of Chicago-based nepotism.

With the health of US citizens in the forefront of the national debate on health care reform, the alarming incidence of childhood obesity in US children, low rates of physical activity, and the fact that pressure to meet No Child Left Behind standards has basically ensured that physical education is stripped from school curricula despite rising evidence that physical activity increases cognitive functioning and classroom achievement, some of many health issues that face our nation, the PCPFS needs a strong and informed leader. I doubt that Rojas is the guy to help move these issues in the right direction, I hope I’m wrong.

picture from Institute of Health Economics