Preventing and Managing Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity has tripled in recent years and reached epidemic levels in both developed and developing countries, and those in Nigeria are no exception. They represent a vulnerable and high-risk group, more likely to experience a lower quality of life. They are at high risk for several serious disorders such as diabetes and heart disease, and a potential reduction in life expectancy. Globally in 2010, the number of overweight children under the age of five was estimated to be over 42 million. Close to 35 million of these are living in developing countries. In Nigeria, studies have shown the overall prevalence of obesity among school age children to be 3.2% for males and 5.1% for females. While 9.3% of males and 7.5% of female are classified as overweight.  Healthy habits and an understanding of what it means to live a healthy lifestyle is learned at a very young age.  So it’s important that we influence our children positively from the start and set them up for a healthier life.

Causes of Obesity

The increase in overweight and obese children is as a result of multiple factors.  One risk factor is genetics. Another problem is the imbalance between energy intake from food and energy expenditure. Aside from the number of calories consumed, another problem is the quality of the diet itself. A great number of families rely on starchy and filling foods rather than protein diets. In most cases, the diet problems start as soon as the child is weaned off breast milk.  Additional risk factors for obesity are closely associated with lifestyle, dietary intake preferences, metabolic disease, and sedentary behaviours.

Complications of Obesity

Childhood obesity can result in several complications in children. This include diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, bone fractures, low self-esteem, and behaviour or learning problems.

Prevention and Treatments

There are numerous approaches to treating childhood obesity and all steps to combat it boil down to a change in diet and lifestyle.

  • Reduce sugar intake and snack foods or avoid them altogether.
  • Adjust portion sizes as appropriate for a child’s age.
  • Include fruits and vegetables in all meals.
  • Pay attention to the overall content of food consumed.  Avoid “white” items like bread, rice and pastas and substitute for brown.  Decrease the oil used in cooking.  Trying baking items rather than frying them.  There are many small changes you can make to the food you cook that doesn’t necessarily take away from good taste.
  • Limit eating out, and when you do, teach your child to make healthier choices.
  • Incorporate physical activity into daily life, every day.  Limited the amount of time sitting in front of a screen and encourage more physical games and activities, participation in sports, etc.

Physical Therapy Role

Engaging children in at least 60minutes of physical activity a day has proven to be essential to a child’s growth, both mentally and physically. The exercises should range from moderate activities to vigorous activities. Physical activities greater than 60minutes provide additional health benefits to your child.

Moderate physical activity means exercises that increase the heart rate without gasping for breath, this may include;

  • cycling on flat ground,
  • walking to school,
  • playing on the playground or outside.

Vigorous physical activity requires a large amount of effort and causes rapid breathing and significant increase in heart rate. This type of exercise is shown to improve the overall health, increase muscle strength and builds self-esteem. Examples of vigorous activities suitable for children include;

  • swimming
  • running
  • football
  • body weight-lifting exercises
  • rope skipping and jumping
  • sit-ups and push-ups

Physiotherapists can help this process in a few ways.  They can develop activity programs for kids in schools and other social groups. They can advise on the right exercise program for children with physical issues such as scoliosis who may have pain or other challenges while exercising.  Physios can help with finding the right exercises and activities for children with special needs (both mental and physical disabilities) as sometimes it is difficult to start or maintain such a program for these children.

Dealing with obesity can be a stressful process, but it is important that as a parent you take a proactive step in managing/preventing obesity and other health issues. You can consult a general practitioner and physiotherapist for support and guidelines.   If you are unsure of where to start or you would like advice on how to involve your child in physical activities, give us a call at PCA to discuss how we can help your child get started.

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