Kids Need More Places to Play, Not Fat Shaming

In an editorial published in the July issue of Scientific American, a case is made for lessening the emphasis on children’s weight and focusing instead on outdoor play, known to boost children’s mental and physical health. 

We should pay less attention to children’s weight and more to their overall health by encouraging outdoor play

“The rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. has tripled over the past 50 years. But what this trend means for children’s long-term health, and what to do about it (if anything), is not so clear.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) made waves this year by recommending that doctors put obese kids as young as two years old on intensive, family-oriented lifestyle and behavior plans. It also suggested prescribing weight-loss drugs to children 12 and older and surgery to teens 13 and older. This advice marks a shift from the organization’s previous stance of “watch and wait,” and it reflects the AAP’s belief that obesity is a disease and the group’s adoption of a more proactive position on childhood obesity.

Yet the lifestyle programs the AAP recommends are expensive, inaccessible to most children and hard to maintain—and the guidelines acknowledge these barriers. Few weight-loss drugs have been approved for older children, although many are used off-label. They have significant side effects for both kids and adults. And surgery, while becoming more common, has inherent risks and few long-term safety data—it could, for instance, cause nutritional deficits in growing children. Furthermore, it’s not clear whether interventions in youngsters help to improve health or merely add to the stigma overweight kids face from a fat-phobic society. This stigma can lead to mental health problems and eating disorders.

Rather than fixating on numbers on a scale, the U.S. and countries with similar trends should focus on an underlying truth: we need to invest in more and safer places for children to play where they can move and run around, climb and jump, ride and skate.

Moving more may not prevent a child from becoming overweight, but studies show clearly that it helps both physical and mental health. . . . 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, children between ages six and 17 should get at least an hour of moderate to intense physical activity every day. Yet only 21 to 28 percent of U.S. kids meet this target.”

Credit: Luisa Jung

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