Junkfood Science: The costs of efforts to whip kids into shape

June 29, 2007

The costs of efforts to whip kids into shape

Public health officials widely believe that children are little adults. If kids aren’t engaging in 60 to 90 minutes of sustained adult-style exercise every day, they are deemed insufficiently active and labeled unhealthy couch potatoes.

Today’s medical news brings more research showing the toll that efforts to “shape up” today’s children are having on them. Kids “as young as four are being treated in increasing numbers for injuries caused by excessive physical exertion,” reports the Independent. It is to the Independent’s credit that it reported on these studies because most media has ignored them. Roger Dobson writes:

Exercise takes toll on child athletes

Contrary to a growing perception that young people are increasingly becoming sedentary couch potatoes fixated by the internet and video games, new research from Europe and the US reveals that the past 20 years have seen a rise in the number of children seeking medical help for chronic injuries caused by long-term overexercise.

“There has been an overall increase in both acute and overuse injuries in young athletes over the past 20 to 30 years....” says a study from the University of Utah School of Medicine and Northwestern University, reported in Pediatric Emergency Medicine....

Cases cited [in the European Journal of Radiology] include thigh muscle strain in a four-year-old boy with a history of intense running; stress fracture in a five-year-old gymnast; an eight-year-old footballer with indications of cruciate ligament damage. In the US, there are now an estimated 2.6 million emergency department visits annually for sports-related injuries in patients aged five to 24 years.

Gone are the days of just letting kids play. Today, in the effort to address “childhood obesity,” the focus is on structured exercise and organized sports — despite the advice of experts on children’s physiology who caution that children are not naturally active in the same way as adults. Their growing and developing bodies can be harmed by adult types and durations of exercise. As recently examined in Little League-itis and a review of school PE initiatives, efforts to engage children in sports and structured exercise are having adverse effects which are not popular to acknowledge in the frenzy to get young people to burn more calories.

The Utah researchers mentioned by the Independent published their study in Clinical Pediatric Emergency Medicine and cautioned that “because of the effects of growth on the musculoskeletal system, [children] are at risk for injuries to the growth plate, apophysis, and joint surface as well.” Another article in that same issue from Dr. Cynthia R. LaBella M.D., at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, and the Institute for Sports Medicine, both in Chicago, IL described the growing numbers of sports-related injuries to the lower extremies being seen in emergency rooms, which include contusions, muscle strains, fractures, ankle and knee sprains, and patellar dislocations.

The European Journal of Radiology has had several medical reports about the increase of exercise-related injuries seen in children and teens. Researchers from Italy described spinal injuries. While they said “most acute injuries are minor and self healing,” they also cautioned that “severe and catastrophic events are possible.” Researchers from Greece described injuries unique in childhood and teenage years “due to the inherent weakness of the growing skeleton at specific sites, mainly the cartilaginous parts.” They focused on the radiological findings and best imaging approaches to helping doctors diagnose injuries in skeletally undeveloped bodies.

Growing numbers of pediatricians are worried about young athletes who are taking activity to an extreme. Their concerns are drowned out in the media by claims of an childhood obesity epidemic.

In this month’s issue of Pediatrics, Dr. Joen Brenner, a sports medicine pediatrician at Children's Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk, VA, and doctors from across the country with the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, reported: “As more children are becoming involved in organized and recreational athletics, the incidence of overuse injuries is increasing. Many children are participating in sports year-round and sometimes on multiple teams simultaneously.” They went on to describe how that this overtraining “can lead to burnout, which may have a detrimental effect on the child participating in sports as a lifelong healthy activity.” They found that it wasn’t just community and school officials who were overly obsessed with pressuring kids to compete, but that parents were part of the problem. They supported recent recommendations made by an American Academy of Pediatrics sports medicine council urging moderation.

Despite repeated admonitions and growing evidence in the medical literature that today’s anti-obesity initiatives to get kids fit aren’t benign, thing’s are not likely to change. One reason: there’s no money to be made selling a program of just letting kids play.

And even that’s not possible today. Even play is being regulated and structured by adults — down to determinations of what makes appropriate clothes for schoolchildren so as to be “suitable for active play.” One of the editors at Spiked-online recently had something to say about that!

A new British study of the way girls play at school recommends schools to encourage or even compel children to wear clothes ‘suitable for active play’, like sweatshirts, trousers and trainers. It also recommends football, apparently played almost exclusively by boys, be banned from sections of the playground to encourage girls to stay active for longer and help tackle obesity. With today’s obsession with body size, reflected in the ever-growing panic about Britain’s ‘obesity epidemic’ ...it is hardly surprising if some young people have a problem with body image. Normal, healthy children are being infected with an unhealthy obsession about the way they look....

[T]hrough the gaze of academic researchers and bullying- and obesity-obsessed adults, plain obstinacy (like refusing to take part in physical education lessons or move around during breaks), power negotiations (who’s in and who’s out), and other behaviour that’s just part of growing up and socialising in schools, are pathologised and seen as alarming signs that the ‘obesity epidemic’ is growing and must be stopped by any means necessary.

No matter what it costs our children.

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