Fight Childhood Obesity -- Get Your Kids Outside

Childhood obesity shouldn't be that hard to combat -- but these days, it's a major problem that can hurt both the kids and the environment.

There are things you can do about it, though.

Pull the iPod ( AAPL) buds out of your kids' ears, turn off the TV and the Xbox, shut down your laptop, and boot your spouse off of his or her AOL ( TWX) account.

Go outside.

The statistics are getting harder and harder to argue with: Kids are spending more time with electronic gadgets and less time outside. The result: They're less connected to the world around them and more connected to your fridge.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that children begin to watch television regularly at a shockingly young nine months of age, down from three years in 1961.

But back then, television was the only electronic distraction. Kaiser reports that children younger than six years old spend two hours a day using "screen media," including television, computers and video games. This is the same amount of time they spend playing outside.

It seems that as kids get older, the screen-time goes up and the outdoor time declines. Kids age eight and older spend an hour more than they did in 1999 absorbing media, and they spend a quarter of that time multi-tasking, or switching back and forth between Web-surfing, IMing, texting on their cell phones, listening to their MP3 players, and so on.

A few years ago, author and journalist Richard Louv declared that our children were suffering from nature deficit disorder. Grist has a Q&A with him about it. This lack of early exposure lasts a lifetime. The Nature Conservancy reports that since 1991 participation in outdoor activities like camping, backpacking, fishing, hiking and hunting has fallen off by around 15%.

It's easy to draw a line from this lack of outdoor free time to the rise in couch-potato-ism that is catching up with our families at younger and younger ages. The CDC reports that the rate of obesity in children between ages two and 19 about tripled between 1980 and 2004. Nearly 19% of 6- to 11-year-olds and more than 17% of preteens and teens are overweight.

And, get this: During the school year, kids might be too overscheduled for a walk in the park, but at least their busy. During the summer, when they might be frolicking outside, they're inside instead, frolicking virtually at their Sony ( SNE) PlayStations or gluing themselves to their computers.

The result is that they're actually gaining weight over summer vacation, expanding their body mass index twice as quickly as they do during the school year, according to a study that came out last year.

In these environmentally fraught times, keeping kids tucked away from nature also makes them less inclined to be interested in it as grownups. A study led by Nancy Wells at Cornell University indicates that kids who have ample "wild" time -- camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing and hunting -- before they're 11 are more likely to be eco-aware and eco-responsible as grown-ups.

We're not all lucky enough to have untamed wilderness in our backyards. But Louv says that isn't necessary. The main thing is for kids to get outside, ideally for some unstructured time, but some organized time with you is good, too.

As the school year winds down, homework requirements slacken, social calendars get less overbooked and days grow longer, it's worth getting your kids outdoors and reaping some of the fiscal and environmental benefits.

Here are a few ideas:
  • Hop on a bike with kids who are old enough and find safe routes for peddling to the movies, nearby restaurants, baseball practice, dance class, friends' houses and even on small errands. You'll save money on gas and show your kids that they don't always need you and your car keys to get around.
  • Fishing or berry/apple/pumpkin/whatever picking shows kids that food does not come in an endless stream, neatly packed in boxes from someplace far away. They'll see that what we eat has to be grown, or grow up, on farms and in the water and woods and it teaches them what grows and swims locally. They'll start to appreciate why it's important to protect local waters and farmland and woodland, and maybe even waste a little less at the dinner table.
  • Remember, when you're small a little green space goes a long way. There are 5,842 state parks covering 13 million acres. They have 43,000 miles in walking trails. And there's city and county parkland on top of that. Some of these areas are suitable for camping, canoeing, skiing and swimming; others are just the right size for a leisurely, hour-long weekend excursion.

Getting out to one of these green spaces near you is a good opportunity to show your kids the nature you have, and that's worth protecting, right in your own hometown.

Louven offers other ideas for enjoying local green space on his Web site. The Sierra Club offers links to organized programs around the country that it partners with to get kids outdoors.

If that local adventure is successful, on your next vacation consider visiting a national park. You'll have plenty of room to roam. National Park visits, though they vary by region, have been declining since 1999, with the sharpest dropoff in the Midwest. The way to keep this incredible resource available and well-kept is to show Congress and local governments that we value it.

You'll come home inspired to make sure future generations get to appreciate this vast open space. Should your vistas, your sense of awe or your good time be marred by a pile of soda bottles, or an abandoned car tire, take that lesson home with you, too. And remind your kids that everything they throw in the garbage has to go somewhere -- and that has its impact on us all.

They might just listen for a second -- before putting the iPod buds back in.
Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at her Web site.

If you liked this article you might like

Disney's Stunt Is No Help to the Planet

Disney's Stunt Is No Help to the Planet

Disney's Stunt Is No Help to the Planet

Disney's Stunt Is No Help to the Planet

Cities: Better for Green Living Than Suburbs

Cities: Better for Green Living Than Suburbs

Clearer Labels Make Smarter Consumers

Clearer Labels Make Smarter Consumers

Labeling Holds Product Makers Accountable

Labeling Holds Product Makers Accountable