Face it, Americans are fat. The U. S. government says that two out of every three adult Americans are clinically either overweight or obese.
The statistics for children are no less frightening and point to a growing obesity epidemic. Childhood obesity has garnered much national attention, especially within the educational system. For decades, conventional wisdom has been: “We need to increase physical activity among our students to combat this epidemic.” Using this paradigm as the impetus, billions and billions have been spent at the local, state and federal level on a menagerie of school programs. It was never grounded in science. At best, it was grounded in bad science—a politician’s folly.
I always wondered if perhaps we had it all backwards. Perhaps children are not getting fatter because of a lack of physical activity. Perhaps, I often asked myself and my colleagues, children are inactive because they are fat. Well, finally, someone asked the right questions and did the science. It seems I had it right all along.
According to a recent report, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood , the answer is now clear. As it turns out, physical activity, has little or no role in the obesity epidemic among children. This milestone, longitudinal study involving thousands of children asked: which comes first? Does the physical activity of children precede changes in fatness over time, or does fatness precede changes in physical activity? It turns out that it is the latter. The methodology, data collection, and analysis are flawless. Of course, this answer flies in the face of fallacious popular knowledge. Year after year, politicians just blindly threw money at programs that were demonstrably a failure.
Yet, children are forced to participate in physical education classes all over the country. I have no problem with such classes, so long as they are electives and thus largely made up of children who want to participate. School districts nationwide have even pinned physical education classes to high school graduation requirements. Will they continue to do so? Probably. There is just too much inertia in the public school system to stop programs with so much history and so many vested interest groups.
In a better world, where educational programs are grounded in real science, children with little interest in physical education might have the option to use that hour each day on something they have an interest in and might actually enjoy. Maybe they (or their parents ultimately), would prefer an hour each day spent in a music or art class? Maybe an extra hour each day devoted to mental or academic enrichment activities– geared toward the interests of students– could be entertained? Is this too utopian? Or does it just make too much sense to be incorporated into public school curriculums?
Now, with regard to this obesity epidemic, it has been clear for many years now that the path to obesity starts long before children even begin school. Sometimes, the stage is even set prior to birth. The evidence is overwhelming that the first few years of life seem to be the most important in establishing a trajectory for obesity. Early feeding errors, including, but not limited to, premature truncation of breast feeding are the obvious problems. It could be argued that this is the price we have to pay for a society in which women sidestep their biological predispositions in order to enter the workforce. The health costs associated with obesity could very well bankrupt us and may turn out to be the single most important issue in our future. I am not advocating a society in which women are relegated to their biological role as child rearers. But we cannot afford to ignore our biology. The technological revolution is what got us into this quagmire and it most certainly could help to provide a solution. If just a tiny proportion of the wasted billions that have been funneled into misguided physical education programs were used to research the real causes of the obesity epidemic then perhaps a solution would be forthcoming.
B. S. Metcalf, J. Hosking, A. N. Jeffery, L. D. Voss, W. Henley, T. J. Wilkin. Fatness leads to inactivity, but inactivity does not lead to fatness: a longitudinal study in children (EarlyBird 45). Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2010; DOI: 10.1136/adc.2009.175927
For CDC statistics on the number of Americans who are overweight or obese see: