People generally view babies that are plump or chubby as “cute” or “cuddly”. They tend to associate these babies with feeding well and being healthy. However, if this chubbiness continues through childhood, it becomes less acceptable. While not all overweight children go on to become overweight adults, obesity in adulthood often originates in childhood.
What Is Obesity?
Obesity is defined as excess body fat in a person. There are many ways to quantify body fat and determine whether a child is obese.
In Singapore, the weight for height chart is the most commonly used tool to determine obesity.
In both adults and children, obesity is a major risk factor for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnoea and osteoarthritis. Obese children also have difficulty establishing friendship, maintaining peer support and self-expression. In the long term, it is far more realistic to prevent children from becoming overweight than to treat the chronic illnesses that arise from obesity.
Understanding the causes of obesity is an important step in its prevention. Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to childhood obesity.
Causes of Childhood Obesity
An abundance of food allows for excessive intake of food from all food groups, especially fats. A diet high in fat is associated with increased prevalence of obesity.
As society becomes more affluent, the amount of incidental exercise reduces. Children no longer need to walk to school. They ride the school bus or are dropped off at the school’s doorstep by their parents. Instead of engaging in outdoor games, children spend more time in front of the television or computer. The excess calories consumed then leads to obesity.
What Needs to Be Done For Obese Children?
Obesity management programmes focus on decreasing caloric (food) intake and increasing energy expenditure through exercise. Behavioural modification of the child and his family may enhance the effectiveness of these programmes.
Interviews with obese children and their families reveal that regular family activities often include food or eating but rarely involve physical activities. Hence, it is hardly surprising that obese children often have obese siblings, parents, or grandparents as everyone in the family has a similar diet (excessive calories and high in fats) and a similar lifestyle (sedentary). Interventions to reduce obesity in children should also be directed at their families and caregivers.
Today, domestic helpers and grandparents often take the place of mothers as the main caregivers. A holistic approach to obesity management should also include education and empowerment programmes for this new generation of caregivers.
Childhood Obesity and Exercise
Regular physical activity encourages energy expenditure, helps to build, and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints, and improves eye-hand and eye-leg coordination and night rest. Other benefits of exercise in children are weight control, maintenance of blood sugar levels and cardiovascular fitness.
Children who are physically fit tend to be physically active as an adult. In addition, exercise also improves their psychological well-being, self-perception, self-esteem, and social interaction skills.
Managing Obesity Through Lifestyle Intervention
In Singapore, hospitals such as KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital set up a Weight Management Clinic to help obese children (aged six to 18 years) improve their weight and health status. A doctor will assess the child’s medical status and where suitable, will refer him/her for a lifestyle intervention programme supervised by a team of exercise specialists and dieticians.
The aim of the programme is to improve health status by controlling the rate of weight gain or reduce weight. This is achieved by encouraging the child to increase their physical activity, reduce sedentary lifestyle habits and adopt healthier eating behaviour. Family involvement is vital to ensure success of the programme. Parents and caregivers will also be counselled and educated on how to support their child as they make these lifestyle changes.
At the start of the programme, a comprehensive family, social and physical activity history of the child will be taken. An exercise specialist will conduct a fitness assessment and will provide appropriate recommendations for physical activity based on the current physical activity profile and fitness level of the child. Following the assessments, the child will be enrolled into the structured exercise programme at KKH Fitness Centre. These sessions are supervised by a team of exercise specialists and will comprise of safe and fun-filled exercises designed to improve a child’s overall fitness and increase their motivation to be more active. Participants will be required to set regular short-term lifestyle goals to help them achieve their long-term health goals.
Age-appropriate Activities to Promote Fitness in Children
One to three years of age: during this phase, children are curious; they like to touch, pick, and feel everything in sight. They tend to climb upwards more than down and are able to jump. Towards two to three years of age, they should be able to kick a ball and ride a tricycle. Physical activities that allow play with active movement are encouraged. Types of activities should be changed frequently because of their short attention span.
Three to six years of age: children have improved fine and gross motor skills with increased walking stride. They are able to hop, skip and run at variable speed. Skills like ball-throwing have improved control and precision. They should be encouraged to participate in activities that develop their muscles, strength and coordination e.g. riding tricycle or bicycle, running, skipping, hopping, and swimming. Parents are important role models during this phase as children are beginning to participate in physical activities with parents and others.
Six to 12 years of age: children have improved strength, physical ability, and coordination. Their own physical ability, interest and reaction of peers will influence them. Encourage participation in activities that interest the child. Activities that focus on aerobic conditioning, strength and endurance development are encouraged.
12 to 20 years of age: growth and development continue to increase, and physical activities are greatly influenced by peer pressure. The use of role models should be encouraged to increase physical activities that improve strength, endurance, and coordination.
Treatment of obese children can be successful if realistic goals are set, balanced diet emphasised, physical activity increased, with strong parental support and behavioural modification. However, preventing obesity is more important than the treatment itself. So, adopt a healthier and active lifestyle.