Moving to Address Childhood Obesity

Childhood Obesity

Taking a close look at the factors surrounding childhood obesity and its stigmas, UNC researchers are taking steps to help children get fit.

By Dan England

In back of Megan Babkes Stellino’s Centennial home sits a series of yards stitched together like the squares in a quilt, where her two children, Evan, 9, and Alex, 6, have the rare freedom to play in a wide-open spot, unfettered by fences and surrounded by neighborhood kids.

Those kids all romp together in their backyards. Right now, the hot game is a mix of tag and hide and seek. Babkes Stellino calls it “beautiful.”

She also calls it a personal lab. That’s because she’s studying why all those kids are out there in the first place. It’s not just child’s play. Babkes Stellino, professor of Sport and Exercise Science at UNC, is among UNC faculty who are finding ways to help solve the reasons for the growing number of kids battling obesity. Paul Klaczynski, associate professor of Psychology, studies obesity stereotypes. Brian Dauenhauer, assistant professor of Sport and Exercise Science, researches the role physical education teachers play in preventing childhood obesity.

Babkes Stellino’s kids are “super-athletic,” as she puts it, the result of genetic gifts bestowed upon them by Vince, her husband who plays and coaches hockey, and Babkes Stellino, a gymnast who competed at the University of Washington. Yet Evan and Alex don’t always take advantage of that freedom to play. They’re social creatures, Babkes Stellino says, motivated by the presence of their neighbors. If the backyards are empty, they’re not likely to be out there either.

“We still hold on to a basic premise that kids love to be outside, and that’s not true,” Babkes Stellino says. “We can’t just provide the opportunity. We have to understand the factors behind why they’re out there too.”

Obesity has actually leveled off nationwide, lending some hope. And yet, childhood obesity in the United States tripled in the last 20 years, affecting more than 12 million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Obesity remains one of the biggest health risks for both children and adults. Obese children are much more likely to turn into obese adults.

It’s also not leveling off everywhere. In areas where residents live with poverty, the rates continue to climb. In Weld County, where UNC’s hometown Greeley sits, the rate increased by 16 percent between 2010 and 2013.

That rise called to Babkes Stellino, and it’s why she and Christina Sinclair, a former UNC faculty member now at Stephen F. Austin State University, have studied ways to prevent it for the last decade. Though Babkes Stellino acknowledges that nutrition plays just as big a part, if not bigger, she agrees with experts that physical activity is crucial to preventing obesity. She also knows, both from personal and professional experiences, that kids aren’t always motivated to be active.

Tips for Parents

Wondering what you can do as a parent to keep your child active? Babkes Stellino offers some advice for encouraging kids without putting a damper on motivation:

Shoot for 60
U.S. health experts recommend 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children. Kids can swim, play, walk, hike, jog, skip, run or play games. Try to keep them motivated by letting them choose what they want to do. Don't force it.

Set an Example
Children are more likely to be physically active when adults are supportive, encouraging and active themselves. Setting a good example will benefit you as well as them.

Encourage Play
Keep fun things around the house that encourage activity, like jump ropes, hula hoops and balls of all kinds.

Limit Screen Time
Set a timer for electronics like televisions, computers and video games. While that alone doesn't necessarily mean your child will be more active, it's a good start.

Instill Awareness
Kids can't control how they perceive someone, such as a child who is obese, but they can control their actions. Train them to recognize their feelings and teach them that they don't have to act on them. This can help obese kids from feeling ostracized.

Curb the Diet Talk
Kids pick up on your conversations. Stop talking about diets, overweight people and your desire to lose 10 pounds in front of the kids.

Through her research, Babkes Stellino hopes to find ways to get more kids motivated to, well, be kids. She wants more kids to play, and she’s working with school districts to figure that out.

Getting the cooperation of those districts can take time. That’s also why she — along with colleague Russell Carson (see “Making the case for schoolwide movement” on page 5) — are studying how physical activity can help boost academic performance. There’s evidence that giving the kids movement breaks, including recess, can improve test scores, and that alone should prick the ears of administrators.

“School districts have taken so much movement out. Academic performance is valued as more important than physical activity, and that’s counterintuitive,” she says. “The two go together.”

Mostly, though, when she’s on school grounds, she wants to know what happens once kids head out for recess. Where do they play, and what equipment do they use when they do?

“Schools can then build around that,” she says. “Physical playground equipment is expensive. Some, honestly, doesn’t meet the kids’ needs.”

Motivation differs between boys and girls, and it changes as they get older, according to her research. Older children were more active than younger ones. Girls, she found, wanted to engage in physical activities they were good at, while boys were more motivated by engaging in their choice of activity.

And therein lies part of the problem: People are motivated by different things. When she asked children to draw themselves as they acted during free time, some related that time to competition while others focused on peer interaction, just like her own boys. That means programs designed to foster physical activity need to appeal to all types, addressing their needs to feel competent, autonomous and connected with other people.

UNC Grads Keeping Kids Moving in School

Two UNC graduates are among those who are working to increase physical activity and wellness in schools.

Paige Jennings (BA-99) is the physical activity and physical education coordinator in Colorado's St. Vrain Valley School District. She is currently coordinating a $1.4 million Colorado Health Foundation grant to support the implementation of sustainable school-wide physical activity opportunities throughout the district.

Cyrus Weinberger (MA-99) is the founding principal of Red Hawk Elementary in Erie. Since Red Hawk opened in 2010, he's developed a rigorous academic program coupled with a comprehensive wellness program.

See Cyrus Weinberger's TEDx Talk video about his program that builds rigorous activity into each day on YouTube (keywords: "All School Movement Program").

Most existing programs for overweight children are highly regimented and fitness-based. They don’t address any of these motivations to engage in physical activity. Those programs are too structured, and Babkes Stellino wants to find ways to combat that regimented thinking as well as obesity.

“How do we give them even more opportunity? And then, once they have it, how do they use it?” Babkes Stellino says.

The Stigma of Obesity

While Babkes Stellino may be trying to find ways to prevent obesity, Paul Klaczynski is studying how our perceptions of those who are obese, the way we stigmatize them, and our ideals of the perfect human, may be exacerbating the problem.

Even in younger kids, it appears that kids tend to dislike those who are obese, Klaczynski’s found in several studies. More recently, he presented children with a series of beverages and told them that his company had adopted a new strategy for creating drinks: They employed children to help them create the beverages.

Photos of the children who helped create the drinks were attached to the beverages. All beverages were flavored identically, and yet kids as young as six were more likely to dislike the beverages created by obese children. They even said they were more likely to get sick from products created by obese children.

Klaczynski did the same test in China with Chinese children, and the results mirrored those he recorded in the United States, showing that these stigmas exist across cultures.

That response is troubling, considering that the findings mean obese children are more likely to be shunned, mistreated or even bullied by their peers, Klaczynski says. But it’s also possible that those with obesity will stigmatize themselves, damaging what would already most likely be low self-esteem.

As a result, children battling obesity are far more likely to suffer from depression, which translates to a growing, significant segment of our population that may struggle with their education, their jobs and their health. An overweight kid with low self-esteem may be less inclined to participate in activities that improve fitness, which can contribute to weight gain as they age and health problems.

“Kids might give up on themselves,” Klaczynski says. “Obesity is very complex, and there’s no doubt that self-esteem would probably play a part in that.”

Beautiful Movement

Providing kids with the opportunity — and motivation — to get fit is something Babkes Stellino is working to make happen. When she isn’t studying her own kids in the backyard, on some mornings she’s at Rolling Hills Elementary School in Aurora. In August she was awarded a grant to start a school mileage club — part of her “Building Our Kids’ Success” (BOKS) Initiative. National grants from the Active Schools Acceleration Program, part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign addressing childhood obesity, will allow BOKS programming to be offered in Aurora and through other before-school programs, including one at Billie Martinez Elementary School in Greeley. She especially likes the club in Aurora because it’s unstructured. That’s why she winces when a guest calls it a “run club.”

OK, so it resembles a run club. She acknowledges that. Kids get a tiger’s paw, the school mascot, for a certain number of laps, and they can wear it around their neck. She’s had more than 200 kids participate, and parents are not only helping her with it, they’re participating.

The mileage club gives her some way to measure academic performance, as she can track the kids who participate. But mostly, the club helps give kids some time to be active, on their terms — exactly the kind of thing her research suggests more kids need. They have the choice to pile on some laps, but there are many others who use it to skip, jog or socialize. It gets them out there, active and ready for school. There are many kids, in other words, who wouldn’t want to join a run club. They may even hate running, but they are out there doing laps their own way. Just the other day, she saw a group of fourth-grade boys walking and talking and socializing.

“There are kids who wouldn’t want to run at all,” she says, “but they are out there moving.” That’s why Babkes Stellino has another word for what those kids are doing.

She calls it beautiful.