Susan Estrich commentary: The obesity challenge of teenagers
Summary: This is what we are doing to our kids, or what we have done to them. We owe them better. More PE, not less. And healthier meals at school. Haven't we learned? Don't we know? It is nothing less than a matter of life and death.
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I still remember those forced marches. Run, the PE teacher would yell, as I tried desperately to put one foot in front of the other. And I wasn't fat (even though I thought otherwise); I marched in parades and did splits in the mud while tossing a baton in the air. Even so, those runs were murder.
are in worse shape than I was. They are fat and getting fatter, unfit and getting worse.
We took a generation that was already spending too much of the time staring at screens and assigned them to do even more of it. We took kids used to doing things like walking to school (or at least to the bus stop), horsing around at recess, complaining their way through PE, and playing sports after school and on weekends and told them to stop all of that nonsense. Stay home. Sit tight. Sit. No gyms. No public pools. For goodness' sake, no contact sports.
Let's be honest: Did anyone really believe that PE on Zoom would work? When was the last time you worked out in front of a television?
According to one large survey, 42% of all adults report unwanted weight gain during the pandemic — to the tune of 15 pounds annually. There are precious few of us who can afford to gain another 15 pounds, and those aren't the people we are talking about. Most of the gainers were supposed to be losers.
The numbers for the kids are just as troubling. Twenty-two percent of our kids are obese . Those who are moderately obese have, since the pandemic, been gaining weight at the rate of 12 pounds a year (up from 6.5), and those who are severely obese are gaining like the grown-ups, at an average of 14.6 pounds a year (up from 8.8).
What makes all this obesity — and the diabetes that we know follows — so unacceptable is what we all know: Obesity is the No. 1 comorbidity factor when it comes to COVID-19. The fatter you are, the sicker you get.
It's not quite as easy to measure the loss of fitness, unless you talk to high school teachers, who can give you chapter and verse. I can walk a mile without breaking a sweat in 15 to 20 minutes. When I was panting in high school, I was running eight-minute miles. Today's teens? They want to run on the beach, one teacher told me, and the beach is less than a mile away. But they're so slow and out of shape that it would take them at least 13 minutes to "run" to the beach, and then they would need to catch their breath for the "run" back, leaving exactly no time on the nearby beach.
These are not rich kids with access to country clubs and first-rate parks. These are not kids who play golf or ski, or could afford to. We're talking about neighborhood gyms that have been deserted, with reason; all the classes at the Y that have been canceled; swimming lessons no one took for two summers.
When I was a freshman, we called it the "freshmen ton," the accumulated weight gain of the entering class. I don't know what to call what is happening to the pandemic teens, but it certainly includes tens of tons of fat and flab that, if we are not careful, will cause health problems that outlast even the plague that is COVID-19 .
This is what we are doing to our kids, or what we have done to them. We owe them better. More PE, not less. And healthier meals at school. Haven't we learned? Don't we know? It is nothing less than a matter of life and death.
Susan Estrich can be reached at email@example.com.