Young people are suffering in increasing numbers from diseases usually only found in aging adults: “adult onset” diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fatty livers, kidney disease, are only the beginning.
To call childhood obesity a crisis is an understatement. An even more frightening prospect is the fact that obesity is a “gift that keeps on giving.” As overweight kids age, they will develop related health issues – arthritis, cancers, heart disease, diverticulitis – any and every disease promoted by excess weight – and almost all diseases are! As a surgeon, I have often said the best reason to stay skinny is to minimize complications and have less fat to cut through if an operation is ever needed. Clearly, few have heeded this advice – the billion dollar a year diet industry offers little hope that at risk kids will get skinnier as adults. Today seven out of ten adults are overweight; this shocking statistic is just a shadow of what is to come with the next generation.
As a young doctor I never understood why as a nation we remained focused on vilifying the tobacco industry. By the 1980’s the public was well aware of the dangers of tobacco and the popularity of smoking was rapidly declining. A new, more insidious danger was threatening public health: obesity. Decreased activity due to industrial and cultural changes, the availability of cheap, unhealthy food, and the advance of two-dimensional entertainments, were all untargeted contributors in weaving the “web” of obesity. Our only critical fiber over which we can exert control is the one of our own activity.
The forces that bring us bad food and two-dimensional entertainment are cultural and economic behemoths that we cannot easily fight (though certainly still a fight worth having). Increased activity, however, is something we can implement today and is the key antidote to the other two. If we stay active we can fight off the effects of consuming certain amount of less than healthy food. If we keep moving we can work off the pounds and muscle atrophy caused by sitting in front of the computer screen and television. But how do we convince a child who is brought up not having to exert any energy to become a Jiminy Cricket of activity? There is only one answer: by establishing a “physical identity” early in life and maintaining this identity into adulthood.
“Physical identity” is the stepchild of “athletic identity”, a term coined by Professor Briton Brewer. Physical identity can be thought of as the way we think of ourselves as active human animals, or, as I like to say, it describes what we do. Having a physical identity does not mean being a three-letter sports star. It simply refers to how we define ourselves (through life) as animals that need and in fact seek activity for both physical and mental health. The love of motion, the desire to move is an intimate part of our physiology, present in all human beings as part of our primitive brains at birth, but it must be nurtured in children and adolescents. Starting early in life in many kids, this natural desire is tamped down by societal pressures (including our “cognitive” brain).
Due to the pressures to do less physical work, to eat bad food, to watch more television and to play video games, we, as a society and culture, must put methods in place to remind us of the joys of activity and “hard wire” our physical identity. Toward that end we must revolutionize our school physical education curriculum. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) in this age of limited school budgets, one of the victims of this revolution is our system of public school varsity sports. It is no longer acceptable to only provide activity education for a self-chosen few while the majority does nothing. Public funds are being spent on an athletic minority, while our society drives itself off a health crisis cliff the likes of which we have never seen – not from polio, tuberculosis, measles, AIDS’, not even from the plague!
In this book I will present my case for why we need a change in the physical education system in America, why varsity sports (a system that has far exceeded its value to the education of our population), must be a victim of the change, and why this is truly the only way we will be able to affect the obesity and health crisis in this country. Importantly, this will not just be a book of ideas, but provide a blueprint and economic breakdown for communities to institute as part of a cultural shift. In other words, this book is a real world solution- not some Ivory Tower musing. While we must attack the web of obesity from all angles, we will not be able to completely close what has become a Pandora’s Box of accessible, unhealthy food or interesting sedentary activities. What we can control is our activity level and strive to establish a “physical identity” to last a lifetime.