More and more empirical research is demonstrating that the earliest years of our lives are crucial in many ways, including how they set us on paths leading toward – or away from – optimal health and wellness.
Family income, education and neighborhood resources, such playgrounds, bike paths, sports fields and other social and economic factors, affect health at every stage of life, but the effects on young children are particularly profound.
While all parents want the best for their children, not all parents have the same resources to help their children grow up healthy. Parents’ education and income levels can create – or limit – their opportunities to provide their children with nurturing and stimulating environments and to adopt healthy behaviors for their children to model.
These opportunities and obstacles, along with their resultant diseases, impact, accumulate and compound over time and can be transmitted across generations, even changing the genetic structure, as children grow up and become parents themselves.
It is now clear from a large body of empirical research that early childhood experiences and socialization are linked to health throughout life, particularly in adulthood. Strong recent evidence also demonstrates that it is possible to turn vicious downward disease cycles into upward positive and resilient paths to health and wellness by intervening early. Although the effects of early childhood interventions are greatest for children who are at the greatest social, cultural, educational and economic disadvantage, children in families of all socioeconomic levels benefit from early childhood programs that translate into improved development and health.
In the May 5th issue of the National Post a front-page article entitled “Risk-taking returns to the playground” describes clinical and empirical research on the benefits of giving children the opportunity to take managed risks in challenging natural outdoor play spaces. Last year, a colleague of mine at Hong Kong Baptist University and I also conducted a major study on children’s play in order to determine the barriers to managed risk taken on playground equipment in Hong Kong city parks.
We discovered that the major barrier to children engaging with playground spaces in a managed risk style was the attitude of the parents. No matter which piece of playground equipment the children interacted with, if the parents perceived the play experience to be risky or dangerous, this message was quickly transmitted to the child, whose play then became more constricted and less engaging.
As children spend more time glued to their digital games and TV and spend less time playing outdoors, we can expect the “obesity epidemic” to grow and wreak havoc on future generations. There are already dire predictions that we can expect the most devastating health impacts on the adult generation that is presently captivated by non-physical play and deprived of outdoor recreational and sport pursuits.
OUTDOOR PLAY AND CHILDREN’S HEALTH
In 2009, Dr. Godbey, a distinguished colleague from Penn State University wrote a seminal report entitled “Outdoor Recreation, Health, and Wellness: Understanding and Enhancing the Relationship.” The report, based on a review of the major research on the topic, concluded: “Children who spend time outdoors are healthier, overall, than their indoor counterparts.” The two major health consequences of insufficient physical activity that were identified were obesity and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, perhaps the most profound finding was that childhood obesity had turned into a modern epidemic.
Dr. Godbey’s report points out that the fitness of young children has declined, and childhood obesity has increased. In the United States, about 8 million children are overweight. Obesity rates have doubled for children ages 6 to 11 and tripled for adolescents (ages 12 to 19) in just two decades. Today, in both Canada and the United States, 13 per cent of children and 14 per cent of adolescents are significantly overweight.
More than 60 per cent of the overweight children aged 5 to 10 have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, such as elevated insulin, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, and 25 per cent have two or more risk factors. Obesity can increase the risk of bone disease and some cancers later in life and increases the risk of adult-onset (Type 2) diabetes. Dr. Godbey points out that children who are overweight before age 8 tend to become overweight adults. Childhood obesity means an increased chance of orthopedic problems and poor sleeping habits, as well as low self-esteem and peer relationship difficulties.
Someone who is 40 per cent overweight is twice as likely to die prematurely as an average-weight person. Obesity is also linked to gallbladder disease and gallstones, osteoarthritis, gout and asthma. Parents, Dr. Godbey reminds us, are apparently aware of those risks. A recent U.S. survey found that parents ranked obesity as their primary concern about their children’s health, ahead of drug abuse, smoking, bullying and Internet safety.
Three studies using direct observation of preschool children report that playing outdoors is the strongest correlate of the children’s physical activity. Moreover, outdoor temperatures, both hot and cold, prompt the body to burn more calories than do heated and air conditioned environments.
To summarize Dr. Godbey’s research and that of others: time spent outdoors playing, running, jumping, hopping, climbing is time not spent indoors watching TV or playing electronic games, where children are more likely to be sedentary.
Dr. Joseph Levy is the founder and director, Wellness Centre for Research and Education. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been affiliated with the United States Sports Academy for many years. The Academy offers courses and degree specializations in health and fitness. For more information on Academy programs go to http://ussa.edu.