Teen obesity has tripled in the last two decades and has reached epidemic levels, according to numerous sources. While the health care debate in Washington continues to grumble, it seems that our youth are being overlooked. I thought we were building for the future? We need to focus more on the generation who we'll need to be healthy enough to take care of us when we get older.
Of course, in a debate filled with so many problems and so very few solutions, certain population segments are due to receive less attention than others. But, the most poignant reform aimed at children are screening programs. What about the kids who are already out of shape? Screening can't save their health; it's too late. There's a generation of teens and tweens who will enter their adult lives more physically ill-equipped than any generation before them, ever. The youth of today are unimaginably out of touch with physical exercise and healthy dieting.
The days of playing outside until the street light comes on are fodder for movies and television shows. Interesting how a true form of "entertainment" has come full circle to the mainstream media. Instead of going outside and playing basketball in the driveway, teens are watching the newest streetball DVD. Instead of riding bikes and rollerblading, teens are emulating the moves digitally, with a video game controller.
A study last year revealed that the average daily activity levels in our youth start declining at the age of nine. At nine years old, the average person starts spending less time being physically active on a daily basis. Nine? By 15, less than a third of all teens are getting enough exercise everyday. By this point, nearly seven out of ten are already out of shape. These numbers are alarming, and our newest alternative forms of entertainment must be the biggest contributing factor.
Even so, there is an even more powerful underlying deficiency in the technology takeover: it disbands community. Teens that play sports typically practice and play in groups. They play together. Earbud headphones and handheld digital gadgets create a communications barrier between teens during a period in their lives when they need to be interacting the most. Younger people learn a lot from each other about how to deal with their problems and the modern pressures of our society; not always their parents, but their peers. Community interaction creates groups of teens who participate in healthy activities together, and when they encourage each other to stay active, it spreads virally.
Beyond physical laziness, the implications of diet on teens' long-term health are also apparent and severe. For example, earlier this year it was reported that one in seven teens are Vitamin D deficient. This basic and important nutrient is found in common, everyday foods like milk, cereals, eggs, and certain types of fish. These are things that younger people should eat everyday without fail; they are readily available and fairly inexpensive. How is it that one out of every seven teens are failing to get these basic nutrients that are so abundant? And, not coincidentally, another factor that ensures adequate Vitamin D levels is safe exposure to sunshine; all the more reason to encourage daily physical activity outside.
Why is it that the solutions to our problems ("play outside" and "eat right") seem so simple? Because they are; these are easy things to do! However, the solutions may be simple, but the consequences and long-term health effects will make life for inactive and unhealthy teens very complicated. Obesity in younger people will cause them to experience serious health issues at an early age, including heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and an increased likelihood of Type 2 Diabetes - all of which have serious health care costs.
So, the health care concerns currently being debated in Congress and throughout the country may be most important to our youth; let's not forget about them. We're already "behind the curve" and owe it to the current generation of children and tweens to help them catch up by focusing on the simple things.