Perry Brown: Get outdoors and model a healthy lifestyle for children


July 2, 2014 

As a pediatrician, there are certain injuries I would like to see on more kids: skinned knees, poison ivy and blisters.

These were once common by-products of childhood. But they are being replaced by something sinister: kids and families who suffer because they spend too much time inside.

The hypnotic allure of electronic media, along with America's shift in diet, have led to a sedentary, indoor lifestyle that puts our kids, families and nation at risk.

However, we in the American West have one great advantage. We enjoy ready access to millions of acres of public lands. Access to nature may prove to be a secret weapon in America's battle against childhood obesity.

Since I was in medical school in the early 1990s, I've witnessed striking changes: Parents are increasingly strapped for time and money; kids spend more time at home and school placated with computers; kids eat more fast, but unhealthy, food.

Nationwide, obesity rates have gone through the roof. In 1980, 1 in 20 American teenagers was obese. Today, 1 in 5 is. It's an epidemic that has arisen within a single generation.

Obesity is more than excess baby fat. A "chubby" or obese 1-year-old has a 60 percent greater chance of being an obese adult. But an obese teenager has a 1,300 percent greater chance of obesity as an adult.

Doctors have documented kids' joints and bones wearing out during childhood simply because they are not capable of carrying the excess weight.

Type 2 diabetes (the kind mostly caused by diet and weight issues) used to be called "adult onset" diabetes. We now see cases in kids as young as 10. Obesity also sets up our kids for a lifetime of heart and liver disease.

Individual suffering is heartbreaking, while social costs are staggering. America's national health care costs are already exceedingly high compared to other countries, but will only grow as we grapple with the impacts of obesity.

Doctors are scrambling for answers. Here in Boise, St. Luke's Children's Hospital has launched its YEAH! program, which combines healthy (and delicious) nutrition with exercise and time outdoors to help obese children.

Being outside, doing things such as skipping stones or hunting for bugs have clear benefits over, say, time on a treadmill. Being outside helps kids fight depression, decrease attention disorders, maintain healthier levels of vitamin D, and develop better problem-solving skills.

We need to get outside and leave our electronic gadgets behind - or at least turned off and buried at the bottom of our daypack. And yes, it can be the great majestic landscapes, such as the new Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico, or our own spectacular Boulder-White Clouds. But it doesn't have to be. Access to beaches, green spaces, parks, or the local creek and patch of woods all contribute.

Unfortunately, the time has come when America must be intentional to make sure that our kids get enough time outdoors. That's why I was excited to see Col. Sen. Mark Udall and Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind re-introduce the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act last month.

There is plenty to be done, from Congress to our kitchens. As adults, it's our job to model healthy lifestyles. It's not enough to tell our kids to go out and play. They need to see us playing outside as well, ideally with them.

So go out and have fun. Play as if your life - and our kids' lives - depend on it.

Perry Brown, M.D., is director of Pediatric Education, Family Medicine Residency of Idaho. Associate Director, Cystic Fibrosis Center of Idaho.

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