Obesity in children

Levels of childhood obesity are increasing at alarming rates around the world. In recent years, the number of overweight children in Australia has doubled, with almost a quarter of children being considered overweight or obese. If the current rate of increase is maintained, it is estimated that by 2020, 65% of young Australians will be overweight or obese.

The rise in the number of overweight or obese children is concerning as it can lead to a whole range of health and social problems. It also poses a significant risk to a child’s overall short term and long term health. Many studies have shown that overweight children are more likely to remain obese as adolescents and become overweight or obese as adults. It is estimated that approximately 80% of obese adolescents will become obese adults.

There many factors that may contribute to children becoming overweight or obese. These include:

  • food choices – choosing high fat and sugary foods instead of healthier options
  • increase in portion sizes
  • more food being prepared away from home
  • lack of physical activity
  • spending too long doing sedentary activities – Australian children spend an average of 2 ½ hours per day watching TV, on top of other sedentary activities such as using computers, tablets, smartphones and other electronic games and devices
  • having overweight parents – a child is significantly influenced by the eating patterns of their family which can have a major influence on whether a child is in a healthy weight range
  • genetics – there are some rare genetic disorders that can cause childhood obesity

Most health problems relating to obesity usually don’t become obvious until adulthood, however early signs can commonly be found in children. It is also important to note that being overweight or obese as a child increases the risk of many health problems in adulthood, irrespective of whether the adult is obese or not.

Potential health problems for overweight or obese children can include:

  • Type 2 Diabetes – this is a condition that is most often seen in adults, however it is now alarmingly also being diagnosed in children
  • sleep apnoea
  • liver problems such as fatty liver
  • eating disorders such as bulimia or binge eating
  • cardiomyopathy – an issue with the heart muscle which is caused when extra effort is required to pump blood
  • issues with bones and joints due to the extra load placed on the body

As well as the physical problems, being overweight or obese as a child can contribute to many social or psychological problems. Overweight children are more likely to develop low self-esteem or poor body image due to teasing by their peers. Obesity can have a huge impact on how a child feels about themselves, which will in turn affect how they interact with others. This has a flow on effect to many areas of their life, including the development of friendships and competency at school.

The good news is there is a lot that can be done to combat this and prevent childhood obesity!

Firstly, it is important for children to have a well-balanced diet, including a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, protein, dairy, grains, legumes and complex carbohydrates. Portion control is also essential for weight management. Nutrition advice is outside the scope of our physiotherapy qualifications however if you would like more information in this area, speak with your GP or a dietitian/nutritionist.

Next, it’s time to get physically active!

A child’s job is to play. They love being active. By encouraging children to be active when they are young, we can help to establish a routine that will stay with them throughout their life. When adults think about exercise, they imagine working out in the gym, going for a run or lifting weights. For kids, exercise means playing and being physically active. Kids exercise when they have P.E. at school, during recess and lunch, at dance class or football practice or when riding their bike, just to name a few.

As with adults, there are many benefits of physical activity in children. These include:

  • improved cardiovascular fitness
  • stronger muscles and bones
  • maintenance of a healthy weight
  • lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels
  • decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and the other potential health problems described previously
  • better sleep patterns
  • increased confidence and self-esteem
  • improved posture
  • increased flexibility and balance
  • improved concentration
  • development of skills and improved motor co-ordination
  • opportunities to make friends and enhance social skills

Now that we know the benefits of physical activity in children, how do we actually go about encouraging children to get active?

Good habits are best started early. Young children are naturally physically active so take this and run with it (no pun intended)! Children also learn by example, so being physically active as a parent can increase your child’s participation.

Try some of the following to set a good example for your children:

  • show your child that you regularly participate in physical activity yourself
  • allow you child to choose the types of activities they are interested in
  • promote acceptance of different body shapes and ability levels
  • reinforce the social benefits of physical activity as well as the physical and health benefits
  • incorporate fun activities into family outings (more suggestions below)
  • expose your child to as many different types of sports and activities as possible
  • limit screen time as much as possible

Physical activity does not always have to be structured. Some suggestions for increasing physical activity include:

  • indulging your child’s interest in physical activity – for example, kick the ball with them when they ask whenever possible
  • show your child how to perform basic skills such as throwing a ball, skipping and jumping
  • take them to the local park and help them use the equipment
  • walk short distances instead of taking the car
  • choose activities that are age and developmentally appropriate
  • involve your child in physical activities around the home such as gardening or washing the car

You might also make sure some family outings are physically active, such as:

  • flying a kite
  • riding bikes
  • jumping on a trampoline
  • swimming and splashing about at the local pool
  • dancing to their favourite music
  • walking the dog
  • throwing a Frisbee
  • backyard cricket

How do we know how much physical activity is enough? Children and teenagers should be getting 1 hour or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Remember that this doesn’t have to be all at once – it can be broken up through the day into smaller units of time.

It is important to remember that the problem of childhood obesity and physical inactivity is something that can be easily managed and the effects reversed. For more information or assistance, speak with your local health care professional.