Treatment Of Childhood Obesity: The Physical Activity Component

Wednesday, January 17, 2007 - 11:22am

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Kids don’t get the same amount of physical activity as they used to.  Recesses are shorter, gym classes are often eliminated, favorite television shows are always available, and video games take up time kids once spent playing outside.  For these reasons and more, children are burning fewer calories than they used to and gaining more weight than they should.  As a result, we have a large population of overweight and obese children who need help.  Though treatment of obesity requires a multifaceted approach, becoming a more physically active person is arguably the most important component.  Here are some safety precautions, guidelines and tips to consider when working with an overweight child to increase his or her level of physical activity. 

See your doctor before starting the change in exercise habit

There is risk associated with obese children making a sudden change in exercise habits.  Because they carry excess weight, obese children are at-risk for problems with their bones and their associated muscles, joints and ligaments.  In addition, their level of exercise ability should be assessed to evaluate any cardiac risk. Before making significant changes, all obese children should be thoroughly examined by their doctors. 

Work towards a goal achievable by the child

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends moderate physical activity for children every day for at least 60 minutes.  However, an obese child may find this goal difficult to achieve.  To avoid discouragement, initial exercise recommendations should be small and exercise levels should be increased slowly. Begin according to the child’s fitness level, even if that means only exercising for five minutes at a time.  A reasonable initial goal is 20-30 minutes of moderate activity per day, in addition to whatever exercise the child gets during the school day.  

Start by reducing your child's inactivity

A simple way to increase physical activity is to reduce inactivity. Television viewing, which is a sedentary activity, has been shown to be associated with obesity in children.  Therefore, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended limitation of television to one or two hours per day.  Such limitation of television, video games and computer games will compel children to choose other pastimes, most of which will generate more physical activity and may lead to improved weight. 

Add activity to child's daily routine

Incorporation of activity into usual daily routines is a simple and effective way to improve physical fitness.  If possible, children should walk to school.  If safety is a concern, the parent should walk with the child.  This will solve the safety issue, increase the activity level of the parent and child, and provide an opportunity to spend extra time together.  Scheduling play dates with friends after school is also likely to increase physical activity.  Even assigning chores that require movement such as raking, washing the car or cleaning the house can enhance a child’s fitness level. 

Get kids moving!

In addition to the activity involved in the daily routine, children need supplemental exercise.  Helping kids find activities they like is one of the keys to keeping them active. For young children, unstructured outdoor play with friends is often all they need.  Other children enjoy organized sports. For those who dislike team sports, they could try swimming, dance or marital arts.  It doesn't matter what the activity is, as long as they like it. By trying out different activities, a child will pick up new skills, stay interested and challenged, and get enough exercise. 

Families should also be physically active together.  This can be as simple as playing catch or Frisbee outside, or as organized as taking a family hiking trip.  Basketball, walking and biking with parents or siblings are also enjoyable and inexpensive activities. 

Conclusion: activity is essential for an overweight child

Following the above guidelines and suggestions for increasing physical activity is beneficial for everyone, regardless of their weight status.  For an overweight or obese child, it is a critical component of their treatment that must be taken seriously.  The fate of our children depends on it. 

For more information on Child Obesity and Exercise see the following article from TheDietChannel: Fitness for Children.