Childhood obesity can be a struggle for most parents and children, but there is a simpler way to solve the problem and to avoid going under the knife: More play. Neuroscientist Kwame Brown, Ph.D., who teaches psychology and human development at Hampton University in Virginia, advocates play — not necessarily exercise — as a way to minimize the risk of obesity and to increase community bonding.
“Obesity isn’t the real problem, but rather, it’s a side-effect of a bigger problem,” says Brown. He stated that the lack of activity, poor nutrition, depression, and other effects of obesity are symptoms of “social isolation, environmental isolation, and the valuing of convenience and status in an information age.” If there is a cure for childhood obesity, it must start with family and community involvement. Although research in the relationship between childhood obesity and play is limited, current evidence shows that family participation and support — with a proper environment to play — can increase the amount of physical activity among obese and overweight children.
Such studies on play and the children’s environment are a response to solving the rising rate of childhood obesity. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that more than 33 percent of children and teenagers were overweight or obese in 2012. In 1980, about 7 percent of children between ages six to 11 were obese, compared to almost 18 percent in 2012.
Although fast-food, television, and video games may be the scapegoats for contributing to obesity, some researches show that environmental factors, such as family, neighborhoods, and socioeconomic conditions, play a larger role in a child’s activity level and parental participation. A 2008 Australian study among 318 parents of six- to seven-year-old children revealed that children from low income backgrounds spend more time playing close to their homes than those from middle and high income backgrounds. Low-income families were also less likely to afford their children to go to physical-activity facilities than their higher income counterparts.
Play already engages children to be physically active and sweat without being in organized sports. In fact, a 2010 Norwegian study that was published in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity showed that five months of guided physical activity two times a week among children and adolescents can lower body fat percentage by an average of 1.8 percent. Even though the amount is somewhat small, long-term affects of physical activity through play can increase the likelihood of children adopting a more active lifestyle as they get older.
Unlike gyms and sports, “play fitness” does not require strict rules, competition, expensive equipment, or a membership. “This is one of the misconceptions that parents get, that they have to register or sign up for something in order for their kids to play and be active,” says Brown. Play and physical fitness should be affordable for everyone, and money should not be an issue or an excuse for not being active.
Play also encourages parents to participate with their children rather than having them sit out on the sidelines, according to Brown. This can help parents to be better role-models to keep their children active while they get a “workout” themselves. With better urban design that improves personal safety and community interactions, childhood obesity can be solved with less medical interventions and bureaucracy and with more emphasis on play, movement exploration, and family involvement.
By Nick Ng
Interview With Dr. Kwame M. Brown, Ph.D.
Center for Disease Control