We all know there is an obesity epidemic in the United States. In fact, childhood obesity rates have doubled in the last 30 years ( http://tinyurl.com/mrz8yt ). When I was in school, there were usually only one or two overweight kids in a class. I will never forget one 4th grade boy who could not fit in his desk. Everyone laughed at him. I can’t imagine the shame and humiliation the poor child must have felt. Unfortunately, that social stigma still exists. Now we know that the consequences of obesity go beyond social and psychological issues, reaching into cognitive and short and long term health problems.
• Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
• Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.
• Obese youth are more likely than youth of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults, and therefore more at risk for associated adult health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.
Obesity also causes a decline in cognitive functioning. According to the University of Michigan, “Not only does childhood obesity reduce the quality of life of youngsters, but cognitive functioning is also impaired with unhealthy eating. Studies have proven that high fat intake and unhealthy eating can dramatically affect the psychosocial and cognitive functioning among young people today. Also, vitamin deficiencies are known causes of mental decline and impaired cognitive functioning in human beings.” (http://sitemaker.umich.edu/356.feld/childhood_obesity ). That has profound implications for the classroom.
What can teachers do?
Teachers are role models. We are careful with our social behavior because we are mindful that little eyes are watching and learning. We are even careful outside of school just in case we run into a student or parent. In fact, many of us sign a contract with our school district committing to a level of conduct both inside and outside of school. That said, doesn’t it follow that we should model good health also?
I am just as guilty as anyone, if not more, of bringing a soda into class. I also put on some weight as a result of that unhealthy behavior. I know students noticed because I got several Sonic gift cards for Christmas and my birthday! I submit that we should change our unhealthy behavior and start modeling healthy habits. Bring water or another healthy drink instead of soda. Walk around the playground at recess for exercise. Let students walk with you. Discuss healthy habits in class. Be excited about it!
We may only be with our students for 9 months, but if we can influence even one student who is on the path to an unhealthy future to change that future, then we’ve done a fantastic service.