The Toronto Star has been running articles this week on childhood obesity in response to a new report from the Ontario Medical Association. A report on October 5 began:
An epidemic of childhood obesity may lead to the first generation of children who will not live as long as their parents, Ontario's doctors warn.
Poor food choices, overeating and lack of physical activity doubled the rates of overweight and obese children in Canada in 15 years, to almost one-third of boys and one-quarter of girls, says a report by the Ontario Medical Association released yesterday.
The OMA report challenged the provincial government to mandate an hour a day of aerobic exercise in schools and to restrict access to and advertising for junk food for children.
For the first time, children are at risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, chronic illnesses that previously affected primarily the elderly.
In a law just passed recently, Ontario schools are required to provide 20 minutes of exercise a day in elementary schools. It's already proving to be difficult to implement, not least because 70 percent of primary schools no longer have a phys-ed teacher.
Richard Ward, health and physical education coordinator for the Toronto District School Board, questioned whether it will be possible to increase that to an hour a day. "With the new curriculum, it's very difficult to meet all the expectations in 300 minutes a day."
Ward has a point. Joel Hirschhorn, author of Sprawl Kills, draws a distinction between exercise and what he calls "active living". Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, and must somehow be squeezed into an already-busy day. Active living, by contrast, is physical activity that is incorporated into daily life so it cannot be crowded out.
Active living for children includes walking to school, playing outside on the street instead of watching TV inside, walking to the library, riding a bike to the store, and so on.
Children are obese because they no longer do these things. Instead, their parents drive them everywhere. The single most important reason children are less active is that they are living in sprawl: the suburban built environment is extremely hostile to healthy childhood development.
Until and unless we address sprawl in a systematic way, no amount of forced "replacement therapy" for lives stripped of activity is going to do justice to our children's developmental needs.
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