D.C. Gets Serious About Fighting Childhood Obesity

Plus, TV time for tots makes for unhealthy adolescents, study finds.

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Children in Washington, D.C. will soon be getting 60 extra minutes of exercise at school every day, thanks to a new law aimed at combating the discouraging rate of childhood obesity in the capital, which has the fattest teenagers in the nation. The measure, up for a final vote today, would require schools to promote 60 minutes of physical activity daily by:

  • Extending the school day;
  • Encouraging students to walk or bike to school;
  • Promoting active recess;
  • Including physical activity in after-school activities;
  • Supporting athletic programs;
  • Integrating movement into classroom instruction.
  • That's not counting PE class; middle schoolers can look forward to 225 minutes a week of physical education. Whew! Add in the law's other requirements for healthier school meals, including vegetarian options, and the children in our national capital are in for some serious shaping up. This follows on Michelle Obama's anti-childhood-obesity campaign launched earlier this spring, and the new U.S. National Physical Activity Plan unveiled yesterday, which calls for more school physical education programs, which have been cut nationwide in recent years in favor of more desk time.

    A new national childhood obesity survey released yesterday found that 16.4 percent children are obese and 31.6 percent are overweight. Children in the Southern states are heaviest, with Mississippi topping the obesity charts at 21.9 percent, while Western states had the slimmest kids, with just 9.6 percent of Oregon children considered obese.

    I'll be happy when D.C.'s new fitness model makes it across the D.C. line to Maryland, where I live. The children in my daughter's school get 30 minutes a day of recess, which they're free to spend sitting on the blacktop gossiping, and a mere 45 minutes a week of PE. Donuts are all too often offered as a reward in class, as is TV watching. Since children spend most of their day in school, it makes sense that one of the big lessons should be how to create a healthy balance of physical and mental activity.

    Here's more encouragement to turn off the tube and send the kids outside: Preschoolers who watch more TV are less healthy by fourth grade, and do less well in school, according to a new study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The kids who started watching TV early in life got less exercise, ate fewer fruits and vegetables, played video games more, and were heavier by the time they reached fourth grade. The researchers found an incremental effect; every additional hour of TV watching increased the negative effects on school performance and health in fourth grade. Children who watched more TV did less well at math, but TV time didn't affect reading scores. The study tracked 1,314 Canadian children starting at birth, and depended on parent and teacher reports, so it's not 100 percent reliable. But there's enough solid data here to suggest that if we let children develop a TV habit early on, it can have a big bad impact on health throughout childhood.

    There's more than enough evidence to connect TV watching with bad health outcomes, for children and adults alike. Experts say one of the simplest ways to cut back your child's screen time is to take the TV out of your child's bedroom. Here are five ways to gain control of your children's media time, including fun stuff like eating meals together. What works for your family?