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Time Out takes a look at the problems associated with childhood obesity

It is common knowledge that physical activity yields many benefits for children; a sense of fun and achievement are important factors. Sadly, modern life takes its toll on children’s physical well-being at an increasingly early age. Most developed societies are in agreement that physical activity has been decreasing across all age ranges over the last 30 years and children in particular seem to be engaging in far less physical activity than they were two decades ago. A lack of exercise and a bad diet can lead to increased body weight, unhealthy body composition and lower fitness levels and performance. Childhood obesity means a higher percentage of children are at risk from coronary heart disease (CHD) and other related conditions such as diabetes.

Worryingly, the number of fat cells that a person will have for life is determined by the age of 16. The amount of these fat cells is dependant on childhood diet and activity levels, so an overweight or obese child is likely to become an overweight adult or at the very least an adult who has to constantly battle with their weight. Studies shockingly show that 80 per cent of under 16s who are obese will remain so throughout their adult life. A World Health Organisation study reported in Khaleej times 13th October  2005 that 17% of UAE children between the ages of 6-16 are obese and a recent Unicef study of UAE women concludes that 45% between 15-49 are classified as overweight or obese.

Alarmingly, coronary heart disease begins in childhood, 40 per cent of US children between five to eight years show at least one risk factor such as obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Worldwide 75 per cent of males have a significant onset of CHD by the time they are 20 years old. US studies indicate that 24 per cent of children have high cholesterol; physical activity can directly reduce this. A recent long-term study also shows that children who have a satisfactory fitness level has dropped from 43 per cent in 1980 to just 32 per cent in 1990, in addition a test shows that 12,000 teenagers weigh five pounds more these days and take an extra minute to walk or run a mile than their counterparts did a decade ago. Sedentary children will not achieve peak bone mass and so are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis in later life. Concerns about heart disease in the UAE were recently echoed by a visiting consultant from Mayo clinic USA ( 7 days 4th July 2006) which seem to be most worrying as culturally it is seen as a sign of affluence and attractiveness to be overweight.    

So why have children piled on the pounds? Children’s fitness has declined over the years due to the growing inclination towards sedentary habits. The heavy reliance on entertainment in the form of TV and computer games, the lack of ability to play outdoors, restricted access to fitness facilities, or the influence of sedentary parents or peers; these factors all bear a negative effect on children developing a healthy and active approach to life. Habits developed in childhood tend to be the most powerful and, unless challenged, will remain with the child into adulthood.  World Health Organisation research suggests that 73 per cent of children aged nine to 16 watch at least two hours of television per day, these kids are 50 per cent more likely to have high blood cholesterol than their active peers, by comparison a study in Saudi Arabia found that children were watching around five hours of TV per day, and that this was the time when most sweets and high calorie snacks were being consumed.   

Children need to get active seven days per week at a moderate level for approximately 1 hour a day as a minimum for health benefits; children need physical activity in order to grow and be healthy and to counteract the negative effects of a modern, affluent lifestyle. Children’s activity needs to be specifically structured, they should not be seen a ‘small adults’ the physiology is completely different until maturation during the teen years.  

Amanda Brewer  
Mobile: 050 5216590

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