Builders Can Help End Obesity Trend in Children
Generating some controversy a couple of years ago by suggesting that new housing developments are contributing to the nation’s obesity problem by discouraging walking, Richard Jackson, M.D., made an appearance at last month’s PCBC in San Francisco to tell builders that they can make a difference in improving the health of their residents, especially children.
Dr. Jackson, a professor of environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's former state health director, said that new communities can be designed to help encourage children to spend more time outdoors in physical activities and less time in front of the television set eating junk food.
One in four American children today is obese and at risk of related health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Guide to Community Preventive Services, and Jackson said this problem can be tackled just as lead poisoning was addressed when it was the biggest environmental health threat facing children up through the 1990s. Today, those efforts stand as one of the major success stories of pediatric medicine in recent times.
By getting rid of lead in paint and gasoline, he said, “the child’s brain is better forever and every child has five or six added IQ points as a result,” with each additional point worth an economic value of $14,500.
The national weight problem, of course, isn’t just limited to children. In 2004, for example, the average Californian had picked up 10 pounds from just 10 years earlier. And the solution to the problem isn’t just limited to exercise but is also closely related to the food people are eating.
But “the implications for housing are huge” and because they are a force in helping to shape their communities, raising the awareness of builders on this issue can only help promote strategies to help people become more physically active.
For instance, Community Preventive Services cites findings from six studies showing that signs by elevators and escalators encouraging people to use nearby stairs for health benefits or weight loss can increase stair use by 54%. “The intervention was shown to be effective in a variety of settings including train, subway and bus stations, shopping malls and university libraries and in a variety of population subgroups including men and women, both obese and not obese.”
Jackson presented the PCBC audience of housing professionals with a litany of statistics suggesting real cause for concern about the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S.:
- Unless more people start eating less and exercising more, 38% of the girls born in 2000 and 33% of the boys have a lifetime risk of developing diabetes, according to the CDC. If diabetes occurs before the age of 40, the lives of girls and boys are shortened by 14 years and 12 years respectively.
- A 2002 study appearing in Family Economics and Nutrition Review shows among six- to 11-year-old girls a steady decline since the late 1970s in ounces of milk consumed, and an upward trend for carbonated soft drinks. One 20-ounce soda per day, Jackson said, adds 17 teaspoons of sugar and 250 calories to a child’s diet, and it would take 40 minutes of intense basketball to work it off. “You can’t burn off all these calories,” he said.
- “TV in the house makes kids fatter,” said Jackson. Children see 40,000 television ads a year, he said. On a typical Saturday morning, they will be exposed to 200 food ads, more than half of them for sweets or foods loaded with fats and oils.
- Americans are consuming 63 pounds of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) per capita annually, which can convert to roughly 28 pounds of body fat. To burn it off, you would have to stay on a treadmill about a quarter of every work day, the doctor says. To discourage consumption of HFCS, Jackson said the substance should be taxed one cent a teaspoon. This would generate $2.1 billion a year in revenue in California.
- According to an unpublished report from the California Department of Health Services, the projected cost of the state's overweight, obese and physically inactive residents was $21.7 billion in 2000: $10.2 billion for health care, $11.2 billion in lost productivity and $.34 billion for workers compensation. The projected cost was $28 billion for 2005.
More closely related to development, Jackson said that incidental exercise has been removed from the environment, and many children no longer have much opportunity to walk. Some communities are even sawing off the bottom limbs of trees because of the fear that children will climb them. “The removal of green contact from children’s lives is a big issue,” he said. (For those interested in learning more about this topic, Richard Louv's “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disoder” is recommended reading.)
Today’s average eight year old has 8% less autonomous space than in the 1950s, he said.
Walking or biking to school is “quality time” that has been virtually lost to children today, Jackson said, largely because of the ongoing trend to replace small local schools with larger centralized facilities.
In 1974, 66% of children walked or biked to school; in 2000, it was down to 13%. Reversing this trend holds the potential for reducing California’s $1 billion annual school bus budget and the country’s surge in Ritalin prescriptions to address hyperactivity in children.
Jackson said that architects should be encouraged to incorporate stairs into their plans. Climbing one flight of stairs a day can yield the loss of one pound in a year, he said, “and architects love designing stairs.”
The doctor is also an advocate of the “10,000 Steps a Day” program, which originated from the Japanese “Manpo-Kei.” When 3,234 people who were pre-diabetic used this program to walk or exercise five times a week for 30 minutes, they lost 5%-7% of their body weight and reduced their risk of diabetes by 58%, he said.
Trails through the community will help facilitate walking the 10,000 steps, the equivalent of five miles, but they should lead to destinations, he said.
As for what’s in children’s diets, Jackson advocates cooking without trans and saturated fats, banishing soft drinks from the schools and getting “kids to eat California fruits and vegetables, not corn."
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