by Jan Baughman
(Swans - June 6, 2005) The epidemic of obesity continues to grow in the U.S., as well as many other countries. Currently, approximately 65% of American adults are overweight and of these, 31% are considered obese. These rates vary dramatically between racial groups, with 57.3% of white women overweight compared to 77.3% of black women. Most alarmingly, the rate of overweight children has tripled since 1970 to its present 16%. Half of overweight children can expect to remain overweight as adults.
Millions of dollars are being spent by government and private research groups to address the cause and cure of this growing problem, while pharmaceutical companies continue spending billions to discover that magic bullet that would undoubtedly reap blockbuster profits. Though it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out, the National Institutes of Health's Obesity Research Group concludes that "[e]ssentially, obesity results from an energy imbalance...When calories consumed exceed calories burned, the energy balance is tipped toward weight gain and obesity."
It also does not take a research grant to observe that restaurant portion sizes have increased; high fat, low price, fast food is an easy choice for many; and that while we've become more sedentary, eating is now a ritual associated with just about every social event, from going to the movies to the mall to sporting events. At my nephew's college graduation in May, which took place at the University of Houston's basketball arena, the concession stands did a bustling business as friends and family members were up and down the aisles throughout the event, with popcorn, hotdogs and sodas, turning this otherwise proud and momentous occasion into just another spectacle sport. (Parenthetically, the irony is not lost on the fact that this was the College of Business's graduation.)
The food-laden graduation should be of no surprise, given the mutually-beneficial alliance that schools and the fast-food industry have developed over the years. With education funding continually slashed, school districts look to vending machines as sources of funding and have handed their students' fates as consumers to the purveyors of sugar and fat in order to augment their shrinking budgets. Blank spaces on hallway walls and school buses are sold as advertising space to the fast-food industry. Soda companies compete for exclusive contracts to sell their wares, and the schools agree to annual soft drink sales quotas which, if not met, result in decreased money. Currently, about a third of adolescent girls and half of boys drink three or more eight-ounce servings of sweetened soft drinks daily, consuming approximately empty, sugary 300 calories.
That is a summary of "calories in." In the meantime, the same school budget cuts which have impacted classes in the arts, music, languages, have resulted in cuts to "calories out" in the form of physical education programs -- a seemingly dispensable part of the curriculum.
Enter, again, the US government with a 5-year, $190 million dollar media campaign to get kids exercising. Their recent campaign, "'VERB , it's what you do,' is a national, multicultural, social marketing campaign* coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)." ("*Social marketing campaigns apply commercial marketing strategies to influence the voluntary behavior of target audiences to improve personal and social welfare," according to verbnow.com.) This campaign puts the onus on parents and children to find, and adopt, its recommendations on increasing physical activity, and utilizes the marketing expertise of Saatchi & Saatchi, among other agencies with "expertise" on minority groups. Yet it is a $190 million dollar campaign can't possibly compete with the $12 billion spent on food and beverage advertising to children. While the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA) reports that the VERB program has proven effective, its funding will be eliminated in 2006 as part of $550 million dollars cut from the Centers for Disease Control budget.
What is the empirical value of physical education? A 2004 study report by the RAND Corporation stated that "[I]ncreasing physical education instruction in kindergarten and first grade by as little as one hour per week could reduce the number of overweight 5- and 6-year-old girls nationally by as much as 10 percent." Yet, as of the year 2000, only 6-8% of schools provide daily physical education.
Kids are a captive audience when at school, and those of us from older generations remember recess and sports as a much-welcomed release from the tedium of sitting in a classroom, just as we now understand the need to take breaks from the computer to move and stretch our bodies and revitalize our minds. Physically leading children in exercising rather than trying to inspire them through web-surfing on the topic is an obvious solution to curbing childhood obesity. It's time for the federal government to walk the talk. Funding physical education in schools is a fundamental investment toward reducing the annual $117 billion cost in health care and lost wages related to overweight obesity. We owe that much to our children.