BY REBECCA SCHWAB
Many American children are facing a common health problem, and though the solution seems simple, implementation can be more complex.
One way to get moving is to take a hike. Here Joseph Dlugolecki hikes with his children Zooey and Quinn in the Adirondacks. Hikes can also be taken closer to home.
Obesity affects over 16 percent of the nation's children. The idea of "Eat better, move more" still makes sense, but for children to really benefit, school administrators, teachers, coaches, scout leaders, parents, and even children themselves need to work together to create a more health-conscious community.
One measure that could be taken is to bring back recess for school children.
Kate Huber, coordinator of the Tri-County Healthy Schools NY Program serving Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Allegany counties, explains why HSNY was formed, and why local children need these services so badly:
"HSNY was formed to combat the Obesity Epidemic," she says. "The goal is to provide schools with the support they need to create healthier environments and make the healthy choice the easy choice. Physical activity and healthy eating in school (lead) to a reduction in obesity, increased academic achievement and improved behavior for students."
The Tri-County Healthy Schools NY program is housed at Erie 1 BOCES, and is funded by a grant. There are 18 coordinators across NYS assisting over 300 schools. The program focuses on creating sustainable change through policy and practice. Put simply, the organizers and coordinators behind this organization want to improve the quality of local children's lives, starting with their physical health.
"There are hundreds of benefits to increased physical activity in children," Huber says.
According to Huber, increased exercise helps children maintain a healthy weight, have stronger muscles and bones, develop lean muscles and control fat. It decreases children's risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Exercise helps children develop stronger immune systems, enabling them to fight disease and making them less prone to colds, allergies, and even cancer. Physical activity helps children's bodies maintain daily schedules, allowing them to fall asleep at night and sleep soundly until morning.
But, as Huber notes, the benefits aren't just physical. Exercise helps children in myriad ways, and some may surprise readers.
"Physical activity helps improve academic achievement," she says. "(It) improves attention, concentration, and the ability to stay on task. It improves mood and behavior, gives (children) a better outlook on life, and prepares them to handle physical AND emotional challenges - from running to catch a bus to studying for a test."
And there's more, says Huber. Exercise - especially free play during recess and team sports - also helps children develop social skills.
"Daily recess is extremely important at the elementary level," Huber explains. "Free play during recess stimulates children's imaginations as well as fostering critical thinking skills. In addition, recess can also provide psychosocial benefits to students. During recess children gain skills in conflict resolution by playing with their peers, learning how to share, and collaborating around games. Physical activity is also known to help mitigate depression and anxiety in children."
With such a plethora of benefits, and such overwhelming research highlighting the importance of daily physical activity for children, what's stopping parents and schools from engaging their children and students in this life-saving activity?
"Even though the research says physical activity and healthy eating are proven ways to increase academic achievement, schools say they don't have time in their already-packed schedules to fit in time for physical activity," Huber says. "Adding more physical activity is easy to do, very low-cost or free and yields tremendous results!"
Parents and teachers alike need to advocate for more physical activity, recess and physical education for children, Huber notes. Making time for this is crucial, and positively affects every aspect of children's lives. At the elementary level, children should be running around and playing every single day. Older children and adolescents need exercise and nutritional food as well - a growing body can't function at its best on potato chips and soda.
"Parents should also be asking for healthy fundraisers, healthy options at concession stands and in vending machines," Huber says. "Administrators and school boards need to know that parents want a healthier environment at school for their children."
But parents shouldn't leave the job of their children's health up to the schools alone. Obesity, poor eating habits and too much time spent playing video games and watching television are problems that start at home. Fast food is easy, but it's not the best choice. Cookies should not be substitutes for hugs, and more precious memories are made by playing kickball together than by sharing containers of greasy takeout.
Huber has suggestions for how families can get healthy together. When families undertake living healthier together and support each other, everyone wins.
"Get active! Set limits on screen time; encourage walking and biking to school when safe; cook together as a family; if eligible, join the school breakfast and lunch programs; and watch portion sizes," Huber says. "The My Plate website, www.choosemyplate.gov, is a great resource for parents to get ideas for healthy meals and ways to add more fruit and vegetables throughout the day. It can also help parents learn about nutrition labels and how much of each food to eat each day."
Next week: Part 2. Some suggestions for activities in winter.