Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Do after school sports help fuel childhood (and adult) obesity?

No study to talk about today, just some thoughts.

Society often likes to revert to the, "when we were kids we used to play outside" speech to help explain away childhood obesity.

I've blogged about that one before but in short, I think it's a ridiculous argument on two fronts.

Firstly, how active were we when we were leisurely riding our bikes, climbing trees or playing in parks? Were we active enough to burn boatloads of calories? Not me.

Secondly I think it's ridiculous because like it or not, this world is full of electronic wonders, and not only are they all here to stay, but as time goes by they'll become further and further enmeshed in society. Video games will provide more, not less entertainment and engagement, and the internet and our social media connectivity is likely to become indispensable parts of even our children's lives.

We mustn't forget that children are also consumers of time. Consequently they're going to spend their free time on the activities that they enjoy the most. When we were kids that meant spending time at home with our parents and 12 crappy channels of TV vs. playing outside. Now? It's a whole new ball game.

What all of this means is that even if you subscribe to the argument that in fact our when we were kids leisure time activities were in and of themselves protective against obesity by virtue of either the calories they burned or in some indirect fashion, on calories consumed, it doesn't change the fact that time changes all, and we're not likely going to find ways to make outdoor leisure activity as comparatively attractive to kids as it once was.

So what does this have to do with after school sports? Just those first few words, "When we were kids".

When we were kids after school sports weren't a big deal.

Sure I remember a summer soccer league and some swimming lessons, but for the most part, sport was had at school and usually in the form of intramurals. Leagues ran before school, during lunch and after school, and everyone, not just the elite athletes, were involved. Looking at schools nowadays it would seem that not only have phys-ed classes disappeared, but so too has a great deal of that inclusive, in-school competition.

But even if your kids' school has great intramurals and phys-ed, I'd be willing to wager you're spending a great many more evenings shuttling your children out to hockey, dance, soccer and gymnastics than your parents did with you when you were a kid. While these classes may well improve our children's health through fitness, I can't help but wonder whether or not they fuel obesity through shifts in prioritization, dietary choice, and learned behaviour.

What do I mean?

I can't tell you how many of my patients describe their late afternoon and early evening lives as child carrying convoys. They'll describe only having a few brief moments after they return home from work to bundle their kids up before driving them to their various events. And what's suffering as a consequence? Food. Family meals disappear, and if they still have them, they end up being something that can be whipped together exceedingly quickly at home (and quick isn't usually synonymous with healthy or low calorie), or food is bought on the run in a drive through or on site in places like arenas.

In turn these quick-serve, express-organized, fitness evenings do a great deal of harm to go along with the exercise they provide. Firstly they help to teach children that fitness is a more valuable priority than food in terms of available time - better to exercise than pack a lunch or cook a meal. Secondly, after school exercise may feed entire families rapidly prepared highly processed junk food (either reheated boxes at home or fast food bought on the run). Thirdly, they help to make the cook together, sit together, eat together meal the exception, rather than the rule. And while the children may not yet be suffering as a consequence of this type of lifestyle, no doubt they're also internalizing it as the example by which they'll likely organize their future adult lives.

I don't have an easy solution to offer. Tightly squeezed schools may no longer have the means or the money to fund and organize rigorous intramural programs and as the father of 3 young girls, I know how much they enjoy their after school activities, and how important I think they are to their physical development and health. However we aim our household priority on the family meal, not the fitness, and we try to schedule after school activities accordingly.

Do take a moment to consider your weekday after school arrangements. Ask yourself if you're taking any nutritional shortcuts that you can change, and at the very, very least, why not make at least one weeknight weekly, a sacred, activity free evening, and together as a family, cook a healthy meal from scratch, and sit, talk and enjoy each others' company?

[And while there's no study yet that I've seen to look at this, my friend and colleague Dr. Sara Kirk and her team out East have recently been awarded a grant to study this very phenomenon. May the statistical power Gods smile on them all, and stay tuned to this blog in 2015 or so to see her results]

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