What is a story about childhood obesity doing in today’s New York Times sports section?
I usually turn to the sports pages each AM as a momentary escape from "real-world" issues. It didn’t work today. "Putting on Weight for Football Glory" details the rising epidemic of obesity and associated ills among American teen star athletes. It’s a sad tale about the pressures to perform and the toll it takes on our youngsters’ bodies and minds. Recent articles in JAMA and The Journal of Pediatrics document that the rate of obesity among young football players are greatly in excess of the general population rates, already at all-time highs. It’s estimated by the CDC that roughly one in six adolescents are obese, a drastic rise over the past 20-30 years. Yet the rates among these athletes in the two surveys are astoundingly higher: 45% were significantly overweight or obese. These children (and they are, after all, still kids) are at much higher risk for historically-adult diseases, like type 2 diabetes, hypertension and full-blown metabolic syndrome. Why are so many of our country’s prize athletes in such bad shape? It seems that the pressure to "make it big" – i.e. play big-time college football and maybe get to the NFL (which very, very few do) leads these young men to sacrifice their minds and bodies at all-time rates. Poor quality nutrition (in great quantities), stress, and probably in many cases anabolic steroids and unhealthy supplements, all contribute to poor health. It is our society and culture that push adolescents to develop this way. At what cost? How many of these children will simply be fat adults with no prayer of making a cent in a professional sport? Instead, they can look forward to hanging out on their couches, still eating poorly and getting NO exercise; but they can watch their friends in the NFL.
This problem calls for a truly integrative solution. It must start with leadership, from adults – we cannot encourage and allow this to continue. We must set examples, and each community must step up to the plate and respond. The Shape-Up Somerville study is one example of what a community can do to combat the obesity issue from a preventive standpoint. We have to focus on fitness, nutrition, and stress-coping not just as add-ons and nice extras but as an integrated component of preventive health that we support and value in this country. If we don’t act now, rather than react later, the cost to these children and to our country is too high to imagine. Otherwise, the next stories we will read in our sports sections will be about the premature and preventable deaths of our beloved football stars.