Steamboat Springs Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part series.
Figures from a 2002 Steamboat CARES survey conducted at Steamboat Springs High School indicated local youths are not as active in aerobic-conditioning sports as our community may think.
In terms of immediate health consequences, body image problems probably have a greater impact than true obesity. At Steamboat Springs High School, 47 percent of females surveyed in 2002 felt overweight, roughly eight times the actual rate of being overweight. Fifty-five percent of females at the high school were trying to lose weight. This group had the highest rate of cigarette smoking at the school and practiced unhealthy dieting, using a significant amount of diet pills and cathartics/emetics to induce diarrhea or vomiting.
Girls who felt they were overweight were 2.4 times more likely to have a high depression score than girls who did not feel overweight. They also were more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
Schools face tremendous pressure to improve academic test scores. Physical education classes have been the victim of academic pressure and fiscal stress to use bureaucratic terms as administrators look for ways to add more "essential" classes without increasing the budget. The irony is that there is growing evidence that regular healthy physical activity improves academic performance.
It has been speculated the increased incidence of conditions such as stress disorders, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression in youths may be in part the result of inadequate physical activity. There is a growing body of research demonstrating the effectiveness of exercise in treating these disorders.
Dr. Michael S. Wendt at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a leading researcher, said, "It is time to change our conventional practice of medication coupled with repeatedly assigning children 'Time-outs.' It's time to get America's children back into action. Change that 'Time-out' to a 'Time-in.' Time to exercise!
In addition to decreasing and inadequate activity, unhealthy food choices and excessive caloric intake are adding to the problem. Remember the most dangerous food additives you can consume are the calories you add above what you need for your daily activities.
The other part of the healthy weight-management formula for youths is promoting a healthy body image for girls and women. The health impact of what girls do to themselves in an effort to control "excessive fat" that doesn't really exist is more harmful in the short run and is likely to increase their risk for lifelong obesity in the long run.
The solution will require the cooperative efforts of parents, schools and the community at large. Everyone in the community has a responsibility. Turn off the tube or computer. Take a walk in the mountains to help your child appreciate the beautiful wilderness around us. Build a school curriculum that requires and provides a healthy and stimulating level of physical activity.
Finally, let's develop and make available to all kids community programs that promote physical activity and a healthy body image.
Dan Smilkstein, M.D., is a family practice and sports medicine physician at Steamboat Medical Group. He also serves as Yampa Valley Medical Center's director of community education and wellness.