In a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity prevalence during the year of 2019 was high, and “affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents” across the United States. The CDC defines obesity as an individual having a body mass index in the 95th percentile of their age group and sex. The recent rise in childhood obesity over the past decade can be attributed to numerous factors, such as accessibility to unhealthy food options, inaccessibility to healthy food options, decreased physical activity, and increased prevalence of online hobbies in adolescents. In order to combat a further rise in childhood obesity and to teach young people habits that will benefit their health in the future, we must turn to our education system.
As childhood obesity affects millions of American adolescents, it is imperative to find a way to lower this number in the near future. Large scale inactiveness of Americans ages 3 through 19 has become too common, and an education reform is needed to educate young people on healthy habits and the importance of being active. Improved physical education programs and nutrition curriculums in health courses should be put in place to combat national childhood obesity. Some may argue that not all students are in the socioeconomic status to support healthy habits at home, but an education reform that also creates additional resources outside of the school day is the third step in beating the battle of childhood obesity.
Rise Of Childhood Obesity
According to the CDC, the obesity rate among children ages 3 through 19 increased by 2% during 2010-2020 in comparison to 2000-2010. It is necessary to acknowledge the contributing factors of this increase, such as diet, lack of exercise, family impact, and socioeconomic status. The latter, socioeconomic status, generally has the largest impact, as some societal groups are more affected by childhood obesity.
For example, in 2019, black and Hispanic Americans experienced higher rates of childhood obesity in comparison to white and Asian Americans. The CDC also found that obesity rates became lower among children as they progressed throughout their educational careers.
When examining children of all socioeconomic statuses, roughly 90% of children ages 3 through 19 are enrolled in some sort of public school. As the CDC proved, it is imperative that children in all socioeconomic positions are included in the battle against childhood obesity. As most students are enrolled in public education and statistics show that obesity rates are lower as students progress to higher education, an education reform is the necessary step to lower national childhood obesity prevalence.
A Much Needed Education Reform
Two of the major fixes that can be made in American curriculums are improved physical education programs and mandatory nutrition curriculums in health courses of all grades. By teaching children at a young age about healthy habits while also implementing adequate physical education into their days, they will be more inclined to continue these habits in the future.
As for physical education programs, schools should implement regular physical activity into each school day as children spend a majority of their day at school. As of 2000, a study reported that only 6.7% of K-12 schools nationally had daily physical education classes for their students. It is a general rule of thumb that a child should have 60 minutes of physical activity per day, and even schools providing physical education classes on certain days of the week or during parts of the school year are not giving students accessibility to be physically active. To take a step forward in combating childhood obesity, daily physical education must be a requirement in curriculums for the entirety of the school year. This will create an all-encompassing way for students of different backgrounds to incorporate physical activity into their routines, and this habit will stick with students as they move on past public education and into adulthood.
In regards to nutrition topics being incorporated into health curriculums, nutrition should be incorporated in any health teachings from all grades K-12. The National Center for Education Statistics reported about 50% of public schools have district requirements for nutrition education in grades K-8. By incorporating education surrounding what good nutrition looks like starting with students at younger ages, these young students can incorporate healthy habits early on and continue adapting these habits in higher education.
Healthy habits are built through routine, and by educating students and giving them accessibility to be physically active from the ages of 3 through 19, they can keep these habits after completing secondary education. To battle childhood obesity, the United States education system must change as a whole to create standards of physical and nutritional education. These standards will reach students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, limiting disproportionate childhood obesity rates in addition to the prevalence of childhood obesity as a whole.
Practicing Healthy Habits Outside Of School
It can be argued that socioeconomic status is the root of childhood obesity on its own, and that education reform will not lead to a change. Many believe that healthy habits start at the home and that healthy habits that are taught in school have no effect if they are not continued at home. This in turn creates disparities, as students who may not be in the financial standing to afford gym equipment or healthy food options may not be able to fight the prevalence of childhood obesity in their lives.
However, even if students may not be able to practice healthy habits at home due to their socioeconomic position, public schools can create resources to assist with this. A third fix that is imperative for school systems to make is to create resources to help students remain motivated to be healthy outside of the school day. Educating students is only part of the battle, as this may motivate them to be healthy without making a healthy lifestyle accessible to them. To create this education reform, all public schools should incorporate healthy options into school cafeterias, and provide before or after school physical resources for students. Healthy food options should include foods that cover all subgroups presented in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate. All schools should also incorporate hour-long physical activity opportunities for students offered before or after school so students can access exercise equipment and instruction to meet their daily needs of physical activity. This can include school sports, an open weight room, or access to a playground for younger-aged students, for example. The standard should be that all schools create opportunities for students to make healthy choices and remain active during and after the school day, just in case they are unable to make these choices outside of their life at school.
At the end of the day, some students may not be able to practice what they are learning due to a socioeconomic position out of their control. As a result, implementing resources that assist individual students to remain active is a necessary change.
Overall, a public education reform that makes physical education, nutrition education, and additional personal health resources available to students is imperative. To fight national childhood obesity, there must be a national standard set in public schools. As a majority of children between the ages of 3 and 19 are enrolled in public education, these schools are the optimal places for young people to learn and practice healthy habits that will continue into their adulthood, limiting the prevalence of obesity in the United States as a whole.