The hidden triggers of childhood obesity

Can we design our way out of the obesity crisis?
SylwiaAptacy, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
SylwiaAptacy, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

A few months ago my family and I moved from Los Angeles to Boulder, Colorado. We left for all the usual reasons people leave Los Angeles: The high cost of housing and low level of funding for public schools chief among them. Traffic was also a factor. Since our two daughters didn’t attend their neighborhood schools, my wife or I would drive them each way—two 45-minute round-trips every day, added to each of our hour-plus commutes to work.

Now, instead of sitting on their behinds an extra hour each day just to get to and from school, the kids ride their bikes, a 6-kilometer round trip. Boulder is famous for two things, and they are related: Its network of bike paths and the physical fitness of its population, which boasts an obesity rate one-third that of the U.S. as a whole.

As my kids pedal along, other children appear on their route. The bike racks at each of the schools are completely packed. Biking to school also prepares kids for learning—expending some of that youthful energy helps them sit still and receive instruction or work in collaboration with other pupils.

America’s corpulence is multifactorial; soda taxes or mandates on the amount of fresh produce in school lunches are unlikely by themselves to make much of a difference in bringing down kids’ weight. It’s also cross-generational: Experiences and exposures in the earliest stages of development, including in utero, can predispose fetuses and children to obesity later in life. Which means that to do something about America’s obesity epidemic—and the troubling trend of increasing obesity in parts of the developing world—we need to start now, and to look everywhere we can for solutions.

Schools can resist temptations to cancel recess and physical education in favor of more test-prep (though first, policymakers would probably need to loosen the ties between test results and funding). Government can heavily tax automobile purchases and fuel to discourage driving. Municipal leaders and private-sector property developers can design cities and neighborhoods to nudge children toward exercise with the development of parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and bike paths, as Boulder has done.

“To do something about America’s obesity epidemic—and the troubling trend of increasing obesity in parts of the developing world—we need to start now, and to look everywhere we can for solutions.”

Layered over all the cues society gives us to disengage from exercise — entertainment, video games, and smartphones probably chief among them — these designs become all the more critical for growing children into the next generation of productive, healthy citizens.

Los Angeles is of course the prime example of a city oriented around cars, and today it’s suffering the results: Its children experience the worst air pollution in the U.S. The asthma diagnosed in 9 percent of the city’s children (the rate is slightly higher for poor children and almost triple for African-American children) is both a function of obesity, as the condition causes inflammation in the body, and a cause, as more than 40 percent of children with asthma in L.A. had to limit their physical activity. Even more—52 percent—missed at least one day of school as a result of their asthma.

As widespread as obesity has become, it presents many opportunities to address the crisis.