Childhood Obesity: A Weighty Issue Reproduced with permission from Dr. Andrew Weil's Self Healing newsletter
Americans' waistlines are expanding as never before. Excess weight is the most common health problem facing our nation's youngsters, and the number of teens considered overweight has almost tripled in 20 years. Alarmed, some school districts are sending letters home indicating when a child is overweight (or underweight). I think this controversial approach may help alert parents to a problem they fail to see.
With record numbers of us tipping the scales in the overweight range, problems previously seen in middle-age or beyond are now occurring in young people: There's been nearly a tenfold increase in type 2 diabetes among children and teens since the 1980s, once so rare in youngsters the condition was called adult-onset diabetes. High blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels are placing overweight kids at greater risk for heart disease at earlier ages. While eating healthfully and increasing activity can reverse these trends, motivating youngsters to change their food habits and sedentary ways is a challenge. Complicating matters, more than 60 percent of US adults are overweight or obese, making them unqualified to serve as role models for a healthy lifestyle.
Shaping Minds and Bodies
I question whether schools are creating the best environment to promote sound minds and bodies. Vending machines stocked with soda, candy, and other junk food have no place in schools, and states need to ban them (some already have). Even though fast food is pervasive in our culture, schools should be a refuge from it. And it's disheartening to see cash-strapped school districts sign pacts with the devil to allow soft-drink makers to peddle their sugary drinks, essentially selling out students' health in exchange for lucrative contracts. At the least, parents can be instrumental in getting soda machines stocked only with water, milk (or soy milk), and fruit juice and in helping select "acceptable" foods for vending machines.
School lunches and cafeterias don't receive high marks from kids either, and might not offer attractive enough alternatives to lure teenagers away from a "meal" of potato chips and a soft drink. Another culprit? TV advertising that influences a young person's preferences for processed and fast foods. To encourage better lifelong eating practices, an innovative school foodservice program in Berkeley, California, lets students tend organic gardens, includes locally grown fresh produce in meals, and features natural foods on menus. Packing your own food may ensure a healthier meal, too.
In addition to extra calories, inactivity is also making kids fatter. I think it's foolish for schools to promote a sound mind through academics, while neglecting the benefits of a fit body by shortchanging or eliminating physical education. Instead of emphasizing team sports, I'd rather see adolescents exposed to lifelong skills using fitness center equipment, yoga, dance, for example that make an active lifestyle fun. At home, parents can set limits on screen time (TV, computers, and video games), while encouraging movement and play.
A complex issue, childhood obesity needs coordinated educational efforts and cooperation between the medical community, parents, and schools, as well as legislative action to mandate change. But a recent survey of health professionals found many don't feel confident to treat childhood obesity or only do so when there's a related medical problem. While I don't consider obesity a disease, it is a condition with present and future health consequences that requires immediate action.
Why Gymnastics? By Wm A. Sands, Ph.D. - Department of Exercise and Sport Science - University of Utah
Gymnastics is an activity of ancient origins and modern tensions. Most large and medium size cities and towns have a private gymnastics school or offer gymnastics activities via a park district, public school, Turners, Sokol, or YMCA. Media attention toward gymnastics has continued to grow, making gymnastics one of the top television-audience draws. Gymnastics at the top levels continues to draw attention. It has developed a large and vigorous "fan" following, as well as and developed some controversy as it has undergone modern growing pains. Little information has been offered regarding the benefits of gymnastics to those who are headed for Olympic glory and those not destined to reach such levels. People may justifiably ask:
What are the benefits of gymnastics?
I would like to organize the benefits and limitations of gymnastics in several categories for ease of understanding: (a) physical, (b) psycho-social, and (c) miscellaneous. I would like to balance my treatment of benefits with appropriate discussion of some of the limitations of gymnastics participation. In this way, I hope to provide an even treatment of gymnastics so that parents, gymnasts, and coaches may better understand what gymnastics can and cannot do.
1. Gymnastics is an anaerobic sport. Anaerobic means "without oxygen." Gymnasts tend to have middling levels of aerobic (with oxygen) capacity (13). However, gymnasts are among the strongest and most flexible of all athletes (27, 38). Gymnastics performances usually last under 90 seconds. The level of intensity of the activities is too high for long-term performance such as seen in endurance sport long duration events like the marathon.
Most sports are anaerobic in nature. Only the long term endurance sports such as cycling, swimming, and running are largely aerobic. Gymnastics is an "acyclic" sport which means that the same movements are not repeated over and over (6). There are numerous benefits to cyclic, long-term endurance sports but variety is generally not one of them. One of the major benefits of gymnastics activity is that it subjects the gymnast's body to a wide variety of stimuli. Repeating the same movement patterns over and over has recently been questioned (57). And, the generally assumed superiority of aerobic training has been shown to be illusory for many areas of fitness, particularly with regard to weight loss (5, 60).
2. Gymnasts are among the strongest, pound for pound, of all the Olympic athletes. Gymnasts are strong in what is termed "relative strength" (48). Gymnasts demonstrate their strength by being able to move their bodies through a myriad of positions. Their strength is high when expressed relative to their body weight. "Absolute strength" is the term sometimes applied to strength that is expressed by moving some object or opponent. For example, football lineman and shot putters have large absolute strength while gymnasts and martial artists have large relative strength (43). One of the major determinants of absolute strength is physical size. Large people tend to be strong in absolute terms, while smaller people are less strong. Strength is one of the major redeeming characteristics of gymnastics. Gymnasts tend to develop upper body strength more than many other sports (7, 38, 47, 58).
3. Gymnasts are among the most flexible of all athletes. Gymnastics emphasizes flexibility due to the need for gymnasts to adopt certain specific positions in order to perform skills. The flexibility demands of gymnastics are probably the most significant and unique aspects of gymnastics that serves to separate gymnastics from most other sports (54).
It is believed that flexibility can be an effective aid to the reduction of injury, preventing athletes from forcing a limb to an injurious range of motion (24, 27-29, 34). Flexibility can also be overdone when a gymnast relies on an increased range of motion in inappropriate positions, particularly the spine (8, 10, 35, 64, 66, 68). However, the research on gymnastics' contribution to spine disorders and disc degeneration has been mixed (69). Care should be taken to ensure that gymnasts develop flexibility in appropriate postures (30), and that appropriate and planned progressions are used in developing new ranges of motion (50, 51, 55).
4. Gymnasts are very good at both static and dynamic balance. Gymnastics has an entire event for women devoted to the concept of balance - the balance beam. The men also have an event that requires extraordinary balance abilities - pommel horse. Of course, handstands are probably the single most recognized balance skills. The still rings in men's gymnastics is an underrated balance event which requires the gymnast to continuously keep the movable rings under himself. Gymnasts learn to balance on their feet and their hands. Interestingly, gymnasts tend to develop a higher tolerance for imbalance or disturbances to their balance. Gymnasts do not react with as large a "startle response" to sudden imbalances as nongymnasts. This probably means that gymnasts can tolerate larger disturbances to their posture because they have become more familiar with these positions and do not consider them to be such a threat (7, 11, 26).
5. Gymnasts learn early to fall without injuring themselves (16, 49). Because gymnastics is performed on mats, the gymnast learns to fall and roll to spread the forces of impact over a larger area and time. Considerable effort is expended in the early teaching of gymnasts to roll - partly as a skill in itself and partly as a prerequisite to other skills. Learning to fall helps the gymnast avoid injury. Fall-training can help prevent injuries in most sports. Gymnasts acquire a very "cat-like" ability to right themselves and to fall without being hurt (3, 53).
6. Gymnasts are among the smallest and lightest of athletes (33). Gymnastics is somewhat unique in that it provides competitive opportunities for the smallest and lightest athletes. Many sports are clearly biased to prefer athletes who are tall and/or big. Sports that cater to smaller athletes usually involve weight classes which limit the number of small athletes who can participate (i.e., one per team) (76). Smallness is actually beneficial for gymnasts in performing better and avoiding injury (4, 59).
Being small and light can be taken to extremes that are clearly unhealthy. The issue of eating disorders and the unbridled attempt to reduce body weight at all costs has plagued some gymnasts (1, 17, 22, 32, 36, 37, 40-42, 45, 46, 65, 70). However, gymnastics is not alone in this problem. Moreover, gymnastics is neither necessary nor sufficient for the development of eating disorders.
In eating disorders, there are a constellation of factors that contribute to a behavior, but these can be classified into 3 areas: (a) predisposing, (b) enabling, and (c) reinforcing. Predisposing factors might be: low self esteem, neuroticism, narcissism, obsessive/compulsive behavior, depression, and a predominantly external locus of control. These do not meet the criteria for causation, however. Excessive exercise and athletic participation may be enabling factors for the expression of these negative personality traits and not a cause of these behaviors. Daily exposure to the general milieu of athletics, coaches, parents, etc. may provide the reinforcing factors necessary to sustain the negative personality traits. (12, emphasis mine)
The distinction between predisposing, enabling, and reinforcing factors versus causative factors is essential to understanding disordered eating and the role that gymnastics may play. Many sports that involve female athletes and exercisers also suffer disordered eating problems (18, 23, 25, 31, 36, 39, 63, 67, 73-75). And, disordered eating is prevalent in many sub-groups of females from high school students (61, 62) to medical students (21). Finally, disordered eating is also becoming more prevalent among male athletes (2, 72).
7. Gymnastics is a reasonably safe sport. Although there are numerous sources of information on injury in sport, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is one of the best. Table 1 shows the number of people visiting hospital emergency rooms in 1997 (56). Note that hunting injuries are not included. In some cases, injuries caused by using equipment are separated from the activity, such as swimming. The number of people visiting emergency rooms is listed after the equipment/activity and the percentage of patients admitted to a hospital is shown in parentheses.
The more a child tumbles, climbs, creeps, and crawls, the more densely wired the brain becomes for academic success. Movement is the architect of a child’s brain. The two hemispheres of the brain are designed to constantly communicate with one another. The left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. Bilateral activities, common to all gymnastic programs, require both sides of the body to work together and separately. Coordinated movement patterns create efficiency in the brain. Efficient pathways create fluent readers who complete reading tasks easier. For example, during reading, the left hemisphere attends to letters and sequence of words, while the right side of the brain focuses on comprehending what is read. Reading fluency depends on an intimate conversation between the two hemispheres of the brain creating a clear signal. Bouncing on the trampoline, tumbling down a mat, swinging from the bars – all these activities help with the brain and integrate the vestibular system. Located in the inner ear, the vestibular system is intricately connected with the brain. Its job is to make sense of all perceived sensory information from the environment and tell us where our bodies are in space. Like the hub of a wheel, the vestibular system integrates vision, hearing, balance, and skin sensations. If children have poor sensory processing skills, they may have a difficult time learning gymnastics skills or regulating behavior. Weaknesses observed in gymnastics classes may lead to discovering that the child might struggle in school as well. Parents – Visit us at usagymclub.com
Ten Safety Tips For You and Your Child in Class
1. “Scrambling Brains”- The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that when an adult takes children under the age of three and throws them about, it could virtually “scramble their brains”. 2. Jumping Distance - The USA Gymnastics Safety Handbook states that a child should not jump down from a distance any further than the height of their knees. 3. Don’t put a child on a piece of equipment that is higher than their waist. 4. Don’t spot them on the beam by holding their hand or arm--hold their waist instead. 5. No socks on the Tumbl Trak, trampoline, home trampolines, rebounders, etc... 6. Don’t jump on the trampoline with your child. The uneven weight will dangerously bounce them up. 7. Lift their hips when spotting them for a backward roll to take the weight off their neck. 8. Children under the age of five should not do bridges. 9. No “skin-the-cat” on uneven bars in class, home bars, or swing sets. 10. Don’t let children hang from a bar if they’re not able to hold tension in their arms and shoulders. Children have weak ligament restraint in their shoulder sockets and loose hanging can be injurious.
USA Gymnastics has put together videos entitled, "Beams of Knowledge" for parents and gymnasts, created by experts in our field. Check out the great videos. We plan to release videos periodically, so visit the USA Gym Club website often.