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Lack of Physical Activity and Childhood Obesity

According to the data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the “prevalence of obesity [in the United States] was 18.5% and affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents aged 2-19 years, in 2015-2016.” (Hales et al. 2017)

These are US statistics, but childhood obesity is a global problem has troubled the World Health Organization for a while now. As a consequence, some countries introduced special regulations that should reduce the number of obese children and instill healthy habits from an early age. This includes school lunch regulations and proposed restrictions on marketing food and beverages to children.

The link between the lack of physical activity and childhood obesity is more obvious than ever before. The digital era brought about a drastic change in the way that children spend their free time and unfortunately, this has taken its toll on their mental and physical health. Instead of spending time outdoors and playing games, many children use smartphones and tablets as their main source of entertainment.

The lack of physical activity – in all age groups – is a global trend, and the consequences are undeniable. In addition to the prevalence of internet-based entertainment, there are social and economical factors behind this. For example, some children have longer school days, and space to play isn’t as easily available as it used to be. The WHO also lists urbanization and changes in transportation among the causes of childhood obesity.

But regardless of the causes, it is clear that something needs to be done to protect children from obesity and corresponding health problems. A study conducted by NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC) analyzed the worldwide trends in childhood obesity over the past 4 decades and the numbers were shocking. Over the last 40 years, “global age-standardized prevalence of obesity increased from 0.7% in 1975 to 5.6% in 2016 in girls, and from 0.9% in 1975 to 7.8% in 2016 in boys.” (NCD-RisC 2017)

As a parent, the best way you can combat this problem is to improve your child’s nutrition and introduce more physical exercise into their everyday routine.

How to Know If Your Child Is Obese?

A child’s body constantly keeps changing, which makes it all too easy to miss the first signs of obesity.

If you suspect that your youngster might be on the verge of becoming obese or has obviously gained some weight, the first thing you need to do is to calculate their BMI (Body Mass Index). The BMI scale is sex-specific and produces a score which differentiates an underweight person, a normal-weight person, an overweight person, and an obese person. You can easily use any reliable BMI calculator and determine your child’s Body Mass Index.

Generally speaking, waist circumference, as well as 95th and higher percentile obtained from BMI are the most reliable indicators that a child is indeed obese. If you’re not sure if that’s the case for your child, it’s a good idea to consult a doctor.

How to Prevent Childhood Obesity Through Physical Activity?

Encouraging your child to acquire healthy life habits starts at the earliest stages. During the first 24 months, a child learns about the world through experimenting – touching, pulling, biting, and observing. While it is important to keep an eye on your child’s activities and prevent any injuries, it’s equally important not to restrict their movements. As soon as your child starts crawling, you should do your best to encourage and reward any physical activity.

Age 2-5

At this stage, toddlers are ready to start exploring the world on their own, although they should still be under constant supervision. Light activities, such as jumping, hopping, ball chasing and playing around in water are ideal for improving their motor skills and sparking their interest in the environment. You can also introduce specific games such as obstacle courses made of household items (pillows, chairs, mattresses), dancing, a scavenger hunt (hiding items around the house for them to find), or balance exercises.

Structured play is great for developing your child’s social and cognitive skills as well. But keep in mind that children mature at different rates, and they have different interests and temperaments. So don’t get too focused on making sure they follow the rules of a particular game or sport, and remember that some youngsters will always prefer to make up their own games. Research has shown that all children benefit from engaging in free play (Burdette & Whitaker 2005), and you should make sure they have the opportunity to do so.

Age 6-10

After a child reaches the age of 6, the recommended dose of physical activity is no less than 60 minutes a day.

At this age, children have interests of their own, which are influenced by their friends and siblings as well as their parents. Encourage all their passions, especially anything that involves sports or any other form of physical activity. At the same time, make sure to limit the time they spend in sedentary activities – watching TV, playing video games, or using other electronic devices. Suggest games like musical chairs, “animal races” (a group of children racing on all fours), and even the good old hopscotch. Additionally, you can sign them up for a sports team or simply spend time together on hiking, cycling, or skiing trips. This is also the perfect age for horse riding, as well as tree-climbing, hide-and-seek, and other outdoor joys.

Age 11-16

In this age range, some children already have a keen interest in sports. Do your best to encourage this and give them the option to follow their interests. However, some teenagers become self-conscious about their looks and they may shy away from taking up any sports or signing up for other activities just because they feel insecure. This is when you should encourage them to set a goal no matter what and work slowly towards achieving it. In case they prefer to stay away from group activities, suggest hiking, cycling, swimming – of course, they can always exercise at home, too.


Physical activity should be a part of every family’s daily routine and a constant part of the children’s upbringing. A healthy and happy childhood is probably one of the best gifts you can bestow on your little ones. Ideally, the whole family should nurture a culture of self-care and active living in order to keep obesity at bay. Add proper nutrition to the mix and they will grow into healthy adults. Remember that you can lead by example – the good habits you practice are sure to leave an impression on your child.

Additional resources:

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