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Hemmed-in Kids Hobbled by Obesity

Acclaimed active lifestyle expert Jim Sallis -- emeritus professor at the University of California, San Diego -- says a thicket of factors obstruct childhood fitness.
Acclaimed active lifestyle expert Jim Sallis -- emeritus professor at the University of California, San Diego -- says a thicket of factors obstruct childhood fitness. But many Americans continue to blame bad personal habits. He spoke at a June summit in Kansas City, Mo. hosted by HRSA's Office of Regional Operations.

 

The Heart Attack Cafe, one of many glaring examples abound of America's in-your-face food culture, said Sallis.
Poor health, to go: Glaring examples abound of America's in-your-face food culture, said Sallis. Since the 1970s, the number of fast food restaurants in the U.S. has more than doubled -- as the rate of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 quadrupled.  But Sallis said cardiac burgers only partly explain why 8 out of 10 kids nationwide fail to meet basic fitness standards.

 

At the Pentagon, it's no lauging matter.

Among young adults, nearly one in four (PDF - 770 KB) is too heavy to serve in the military, according to the CDC, and one in three who try to enlist are too overweight or obese for basic training. Of those who make it as far as boot camp, nearly half of male recruits (and 59 percent of females) fail the Army’s entry-level fitness test, a new study HRSA Exit Disclaimer reported earlier this year.

Sallis told his audience in Kansas City that a convergence of alarming metrics clearly suggest that pressures larger than simply poor eating habits and videogames are at work on kids. Rather, environmental factors and public policy decisions have created conditions that impede functional fitness.

"Right now we know that more than half of the states have identified reducing obesity and overweight (children) as a high priority," said HRSA Regional Administrator Lisa Goschen. And broad regional differences in rates underscore the systemic nature of the problem. Obesity is more common, for example, in the South than the Northeast and Western states.

"You have to ask yourself, are you more interested in moving cars or moving people," said Sallis, an avid bicyclist and urban planning consultant. Suburban sprawl, proliferating multi-lane road systems and low funding levels for parks, bike paths and recreational facilities have hemmed kids in, he said, and made the U.S. the least fit country in a recent study of ten industrialized nations.

In fact, children in Estonia are more active.

A typical suburban streetscape is a "hostile environment" for pedestrians -- adults and children alike. America, Sallis says,  has "pioneered and perfected" community development patterns built for cars, not people.
Cross at your own risk: A typical suburban streetscape is a "hostile environment" for pedestrians -- adults and children alike. America, Sallis says,  has "pioneered and perfected" community development patterns built for cars, not people.

 

"We only intervene with individuals," Sallis said. "But we're basically in a hostile environment. Healthy food is hard to find, and it's unsafe to be active in a lot of places. You have to really strive ... to pursue healthy behavior. If we're only working with individuals, we're trying to get them strong and to take individual responsibility in the face of many community barriers."

New York City, he observed, is among the least obese jurisdictions in the U.S. -- because it's "the most walkable city in America." Built before the dawn of tangled highway systems, concrete barriers and restrictive zoning laws, it also has one of the nation's most extensive park systems, interspersed with neighborhoods where residential housing occupies the same streets as groceries, restaurants, offices and schools.

"That supports shopping near where people live" and walking as a principal mode of transportation, instead of driving to the distant super stores, food warehouses and malls that characterize American suburbia.

"And all cities were built this way," Sallis said, "up until the early 20th century."

America has been getting fatter and flabbier ever since -- as confirmed in military readiness studies since the 1950s -- concurrent with declines in the prevalence of school fitness programs and a spike in the consumption of fast food, processed snacks and sugary drinks.

Horns of a dilemma:  As walking and biking have become more hazardous,  kids increasingly rely on cars to get around -- while minority children find few safe places to play.
Horns of a dilemma:  As walking and biking have become more hazardous,  kids increasingly rely on cars to get around -- while minority children find few safe places to play.

 

Among other measures, Sallis said, researchers recommend 100 minutes of Physical Education per week, taught by certified instructors, and 20 minutes or more of recess. The CDC endorses 30 mins per day of physical activity, but reports that fewer than one in four American kids gets that much.  Federal guidelines recommend a weekly minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity. HHS is scheduled to issue new guidelines by the end of 2018.

"P.E. alone, or activity breaks alone, or recess alone are not enough," Sallis said, adding that a review of 43 studies on obesity prevention found that public policy changes, parental education on diet and exercise, and physical education were effective in addressing the problem if they were combined and sustained.

The benchmark Healthy Communities Study by the National Institutes of Health that looked at 5,000 kids in 130 jurisdictions concurred, finding that there is a direct correlation between on-going interventions in a community and the body mass index of its children.

ORO's Rae Hutchison and Richard  Overcast were the principal organizers of the summit, which included Children's Mercy Kansas City, the Kansas City Department of Planning and the University of Kansas, among others
Brought to you by: ORO's Rae Hutchison and Richard Overcast were
the principal organizers of the summit, which included Children's Mercy Kansas City, the Kansas City Department of Planning and the University of Kansas, among others.

Watch Jim Sallis' full remarks.

Learm more from the CDC.

See HHS Facts & Stats on fitness in America.

The Office of Regional Operations (ORO) Region 7 Office is based in Kansas City, Missouri and serves Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. 

Date Last Reviewed:  July 2018