Tuesday, August 04, 2009

My "when we were kids we played outside" rant

Often I'll hear the ridiculous argument, "When we were kids we played outside" thrown around to explain childhood obesity. Presumably proponents of this argument believe that the answer to our childhood obesity problems lies with getting kids to build treehouses and play tag. In fact PartipACTION was recently revived (at taxpayer expense) for this very purpose, this despite the fact that during the 30 years of ParticipACTION's reign childhood obesity rates in Canada rose by roughly 300%.

So why don't kids play outside anymore? Have kids changed? Of course not. Kids, just like adults, are consumers. If they've got a few free hours they'll weigh out their options and choose the one that's most enticing. I think people tend to romanticize our heady days of cops and robbers and forget that when we were kids the only alternative to playing outside was staying inside with our parents. We didn't have XBOXes, the internet, cable television or text messages. We had parents who wanted us to do chores, clean our rooms, or worse yet, talk - go figure we played outside.

And could playing outside really make a difference to weight? For me playing outside often involved lazy bike rides to parks where I'd climb a tree and sit for a while, or building a fort in the backyard, or spending literally hours on a swing. It certainly didn't involve high intensity exercise. Sure, I played baseball and football with my friends - but then so do kids today as organized sports have taken off over the course of the past 20 years.

Sadly even high intensity exercise doesn't burn nearly as many calories as would be fair and consequently if we do in fact get kids outside to play leisurely outside, it's not as if their pounds are going to melt away.

Getting your kids to play outside is a fantastic idea for their health, but please do me a favour and stop explaining away childhood obesity with whimsy.

If you want your children to play outside and live an active lifestyle, the best thing you can do is lead by example and live the life you want your children to live and then hope for the best.

The only other option would be installing XBOXes in our parks but I think that might defeat the purpose.

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  1. Michael7:17 am

    Excersise is only part of keeping myself and my kids outside, staying away from the fridge and pantry is our benefit from being outside. Bringing no money for easy eats anywhere also helps.

  2. While playing outside may not explain the "obesity epidemic", when we grew up, our mothers wanted us out of the house so they could clean, we had safe neighborhoods in which all the adults looked after all of the kids (and heavens forbid you should misbehave), the cookie jar/pantry/fridge was off-limits (Mom would dole out snacks in appropriate types and amounts, other adults would check with your mom before offering), and there were no "safety" laws that leave parents torn between purchasing the action item of the sport (bicycle, baseball and bat, football, roller skates) and the legally-mandated safety equipment (helmet, gloves, knee pads, etc.).

    Today, if a child is fortunate enough to grow up in a two-parent household, both parents are at work all day; latch-key kids have no restrictions on the fridge, the cookie jar, the TV, the Internet, or the Nintendo. The neighbors do not know each other or consider it "not my business" to keep an eye out for the neighbors' kids.

    Then again, how many of our parents kept cookies, chips, or candy in the house when they were not expecting "company"? And in how many households were they off-limits to the kids because they were "for company"?

  3. Anonymous3:27 pm

    I agree with both of these commenters. I agree with the article to an extent, that just being outside doesn't make a kid active. However, when I was playing hide and seek, building forts and riding my bike for HOURS on end, I wasn't even thinking about food. Like Michael said, the benefit was being far away from the fridge all day.

    And like Brenda states, our mothers didn't buy cookies or "treats" on a regular basis. We actually knew the difference between a "treat" and regular food. Many kids today consider cookies a staple food in their everyday diet. There IS no concept of "treat". Pop, chips, cookies are readily available and consumed in large quantities while playing the XBOX.

  4. Anonymous5:35 pm

    I was going to say basically the same thing as everyone else. When I was playing outside, I wasn't eating junk food. Unfortunately, it's too easy and tempting to sit and eat garbage when you're playing video games or surfing the Internet.

    Maybe it wasn't so much the outdoor exercise itself, as that it prevented the mindless eating that does contribute to obesity.

  5. I am new to the blog, but have you read Gary Taubes Good Calories, Bad Calories?

    It's a great review of the last 100 years of obesity research.

    Susan :)

  6. Anonymous5:04 pm

    I grew up in the 60's and have children in elementary school now. In addition to playing outside, the biggest changes I've seen are the increase in the number of meals eaten at restaurants and the expectation that snacks will be provided for children at a staggering number of events and with total disregard to proximity to meal times. Food is everywhere and portions are enormous -- why be surprised that we are too?