Ann Amuta, MPH, CPH
I always teased my obese friend, Molly, who grew up in the ‘hoods’ of Houston until she told me about her life’s journey to obesity and all the health complications that have ensued. My friend was poor, lived in a dangerous area, had to ride the bus to school because there were no safe paths to walk, and couldn’t afford healthy food so she ate fast food and whatever was served in the free school meals.
It is easy to blame Molly and say “why didn’t you watch what you ate?” or “why didn’t you exercise?” but we cannot forget the conditions of her childhood. Her mother did not let her play outside because of violence in her neighborhood. Her sedentary lifestyle arose not by choice but circumstances.
After hearing this brief tale of her life, can you blame Molly for being obese? If you can empathize with Molly, then you are getting the point. Federal government guidelines recommend that children participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity (PA) daily for optimal health effects and to help reduce the obesity epidemic that has plagued the U.S. However, most children in the US don’t meet those recommendations.
Children from rural and low income communities report lower PA levels than the national average due to the barriers I shared with you earlier told to me by Molly. While school-based physical education (PE) can provide safe and effective PA opportunities for people like Molly, both political and economic climates in recent times have mandated some school boards to make some cuts to physical education programs. Therefore, PE resources and requirements are being reduced. After running the correlation tests, the number of days of PE in a low-income school like Molly’s was strongly correlated with the amount of PA in a typical week. If the Mollys of today can’t do some form of PA in the safest place they find themselves, the school, then all hopes of getting active are gone until our Mollys are old enough – and lucky enough - to move to safer neighborhoods with sidewalks and pathways.
The issue of childhood obesity has been recognized as a critical health problem, particularly considering the health trajectory most obese children face such as: Diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease etc. PE should be a regular part of school curriculum in every community, and particular attention paid to those communities with low income students. Also, health policy agendas need to make physical activity for children a priority and give them an opportunity to improve their health at an early age.
Do you want to know more? Read the article by Marilyn S. Nanney et al (2010) American Journal of Preventive Medicine - January 2010 (Vol. 38, Issue 1, Pages 9-16, DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2009.08.031) http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797%2809%2900641-2/pdf