by Michael Rhattigan, Chief Adventure Officer
I want to start with a piece of good news. The CDC recently reported that for the first time in the past 30 years, obesity rates have actually begun to stagnate and even decline. Between 2003-2010, obesity decreased slightly from 15.21% to 14.94%. Now that is not earth-shattering news and it is far from a gold medal of success. But it is progress.
Here’s some bad news. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The percentage of children age 6-11 in the US who are obese increased from just 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2010. The most recent reports indicate that most of that change occurred between 1980 and 1999 or 2000. Since 2000, we’ve begun to stagnate.
With the overall increases comes increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Diabetes II. All of those conditions are high risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Obese children are also more likely to be obese adults than their healthy counterparts
Low-income, urban areas lag even further behind. The inability to get healthy is not for lack of desire. These communities often face additional challenges.
Here are some of those challenges:
1. Low income levels.
1 in 7
1 in 7 low-income children is obese. That statistic and the fact that the number of people living at or below the poverty line is the highest it’s been in the 51 years (since the US Census bureau began keeping records of the statistic) present special challenges to low-income settings.
2. Food Deserts
The CDC found that low-income areas are highly susceptible to what are called “food desert” conditions, where convenient access to healthy establishments is diminished and access to convenience stores or bodegas and fast food is enhanced. In fact, the CDC even assigns a score to neighborhoods called the modified Retail Food Environment Index (mRFEI). The score describes the environmental pressures affecting a population’s access to healthy food and ultimately, their consumption choices. Low-income areas, which exhibit both low access to supermarkets and easy access to convenience stores and fast food restaurants, receive the lowest scores.
3. Increasing role of sugar.
Candy, cookies, ice cream, and soda have been around for generations. In fact most medical experts – including ours, highlight the fact that these foods are acceptable when used in moderation. The distinction that’s important is between a “treat” like candy that is a once per week or once every couple of weeks item, and a “snack” like an apple or a cup of cashews, which can (and should) be eaten daily between meals. Combined with the food environment issues highlighted above, which show that kids in low-income areas tend to have greater access to sugary drinks, urban kids are at greater risk to incorporate sugary beverages and treats into their everyday diets.
4. Increased sedentary lifestyle.
This is one of the biggest causes of the obesity epidemic. In previous generations more time was spent outside, running, chasing, jumping, and generally being active. The current generation on the other hand exhibits increased rates of passive TV viewing, video game usage, and overall “screen time.” The CDC recommends limiting screen time to no more than 2 hours per day. TVs have become a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment and enjoy higher than average usage in urban areas.
5. Safety concerns.
With instant and increased media attention to stories such as the recent kidnapping atrocity perpetrated by Ariel Castro in Cleveland, safety is a big concern for parents in urban areas. Low-income neighborhoods also continue to lack access to sidewalks, green space, parks, and recreation centers. Many communities lack the funding to provide adequate space for recreation and leisure. Additionally, space that is supposed to be provided for physical activities is often either in disrepair or inhabited by gangs and general criminal activity that is a real concern for urban parents. A combination of two or all three of these factors leaves you with the question: How do kids get their exercise?
6. Ethnic and Cultural Factors
Unfortunately, for ethnically diverse populations living in low-income areas the outcomes are even worse. The table below displays obesity prevalence for boys and girls by race/ethnicity:
We recently took part in an Education for a Better America event to promote health and fitness in urban areas. Rev. Al Sharpton was one of the speakers and related a story that when he grew up, everyone though fat kids were healthier kids. While this thinking has changed a lot, it is still prevalent in many cultures (especially outside the US).
There is also higher prevalence of single parents in urban areas. 87 percent of employed single parents work 30 hours or more per week. That leaves much of the child rearing to grandparents, for whom these beliefs often still ring true.
Here are some more quick figures on the particular challenges these communities face:
Between 1988-94 and 2007-08, American communities saw increases in obesity on the orders of:
• 11.6-16.7% among non-Hispanic white boys
• 10.7-19.8% among non-Hispanic black boys
• 14.1-26.8% among Mexican American boys
• 8.9-14.5% among non-Hispanic white girls
• 16.3-29.2% among non-Hispanic black girls
• 13.4-17.4% among Mexican American girls
7. Parents are uninformed. Schools can’t make up the difference.
This is an issue across the nation, in wealthy and poor communities, rural and urban. Our educational and medical experts are all quick to point out that generally parents all want the same good opportunities and well being for their kids. It’s in our DNA. Having said that, many low-income areas face higher than average rates of single parents, and those parents tend to work long hours. Coupled with immigration and language barriers, parents in these areas just don’t have the answers. How could they have time to learn?
The CDC states that, “Schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors. Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity behaviors.” As we are now seeing in Michigan, low-income schools are the first to face the budget axe. Even when schools do have the resources needed to keep kids healthy, they only get a limited amount of time with them each day. Attention to health and fitness needs to be 24 hours per day, and that means parents must play a greater role to provide those opportunities in the home.