Get healthy

if only it was so simple….

9:18 AM

Kids obesity! Unless you have been living under a rock, you should know that it is a favourite topic in the Indian media, along with adult obesity I might add. And there is no denying it, urban Indians are getting plump, thanks to a more sedentary lifestyle, a diet no longer suited for said new lifestyle, stress, and lack of exercise in one’s daily routine.
When it comes to kids however, media like to blame it exclusively on junk food and TV…and boy oh boy I wish it was so simple.
true kids are offered fried snacks after school in a lot of homes, because it’s quick, convenient and kids love it but then I remember growing up on an after school snack of chocolate filled buns, enough fresh fruits and running to the bakery to get candy treats before heading to the playground to play for 2-3 hours at a time…and I was thin, well actually underweight enough to panic the school nurse.
But if you read that sentence again, you’ll noticed that true I grew up on afterschool treats that weren’t exactly what our nutritionist would call healthy, but you will also noticed I mentioned playing at the playground 2-3 hours a day afterschool…ah ha! There! You have it, I like pretty much all the kids in my neighbourhood were very outdoorsy. iPads didn’t exist, computers were big boring piece of hardware that were confined to the school computer lab, TV gaming consoles were still costly enough for not everybody to have one, and we had only 6 TV channels on the TV with only 4 in French and they had only one or two hours of cartoons a day, not worth waiting for them at home, and once engrossed into a game of pirates by the creek it was completely forgotten. TV was that thing saved for rainy days or sick days. I grew up in Switzerland, but DH reported the exact same blissful childhood of cricket matches, running bare feet around the neighbourhood and burning that big samosa load of calories having fun. Sure we all had homeworks, but parents didn’t have the pressure to send us to tuitions, chess classes, math classes, abacus classes, dance classes, music classes, painting classes…cramming our afterschool schedule with as many activities they could afford. As a kid I remember having a gymnastic class 2 hours a week, and all the remaining free time was dedicated to free play. And both my parents were working might I add.

So today’s urban Indian kid probably still eat as much junk as we used to eat ourselves, but the difference is that in most places green spaces are shrinking, many housing societies in Mumbai feel they are doing the kids a huge favour squishing a swing set in a tiny corner of their compound and filling the rest of the space with buildings or parking lots. Not that it matter much because kids don’t really have the luxury to be kids these days. Because after school hours have to be jam packed with extra-curricular, and not even necessarily the ones kids care about. There have been many articles written about the fact kids in cities are often over burdened with activities just to meet their parent’s standards and helping them keep up with the Kumars. or to give the kids a competitive edge in school, that lead children psychiatrists and counsellors in school pulling the alarm urging parents to not stress the kid with more than they can chew and stress the importance of free play as part of a healthy mental development…in a word parents are told to let their kids run wild in the playground instead of trying to shape them into Chess champions or Carnatic music maestros before they reached the age of 10.
Stress…the good old overlooked factor in lifestyle diseases! Stress is a natural response from the body when placed in an intense environment, the body produce cortisol, it increases the heart rate and metabolism to allow the body to flee danger. It’s a healthy mechanism, the problem in today’s world is that the danger is not something to run away from, so the body hikes the metabolism, making people hungrier and craving the type of food their cave man ancestors would have needed to run away from a predator and survive, but that extra food energy get unburned because our stress is in response to no life threatening factors but over stimulation. Instead of blaming people for eating fatty high carb food, it would be time to focus on what makes them eat it in the first place, the truth is that most are satisfying a very real craving triggered by a very healthy stress response mechanism. That mechanism is not an intelligent one, it doesn’t recognise “I’m going to get killed by a mountain lion if I don’t run fast” stress from a “My boss wants me to work until midnight every night” stress. In Both case it is stress, stress that is elevating the metabolism. The only difference being that the boss induced stress is a long lasting one that end up forcing the body to stockpile energy (if you paid attention in Biology, fat tissues are stocks of energy fuel the body can depend upon when the raw energy is scarce).
Kids like adults are stressed, and worse they are not getting the appropriate exercise they need to not only beat the stress but contribute to their overall development (kids have a higher activity level than adults, among all species of the animal kingdom might I add).

So the problem with kids obesity is that first kids aren’t getting access to open spaces in cities to go burn that natural energy, thanks to the lack of green safe space they spend more time in front of the TV, parents having had the memo that TV is bad for kids are trying to fix it by getting them into every single activity classes in the neighbourhood to keep them busy and out of trouble, the child gets stressed out, constantly pressurized to compete and excel, the body respond to that stress hyping the metabolism, the kid end up eating more calorie dense food to meet their body’s craving and needs, but the extra calories aren’t getting burned as they should in a music class and coaching sessions, leading to pent up energy levels, frustration, more stress, more eating, more stress and a body that stockpile in the form of fat. Serving healthy snack is at this point a rather feeble solution, because the body is not craving fruits and whole grain under stress, it needs more immediate raw energy, and if the body does not get what it needs the stress level escalate…the reason why those embarking on a sudden crash diet of salads and fruits after having been used to fats and grains are likely to end up moody, irritable and even more prone to stress.

The conclusion being that NO it’s not kids eating junk food that is the cause of children obesity, we ate junk food as kids and were fine. It’s the lack of exercise. I live in an area that fortunately has a lot of leg room for the kids to play. And the kids that come to the playground everyday are all fit, muscular and healthy looking, the kids that are overweight and obese are almost never at the playground, but I see them with a backpack twice their size marching into tuition classes the whole week long and only playing an hour outside every now and then, by the time they are free from their coaching classes they are too mentally exhausted to want to go run and play, they usually head home, crash on the sofa watching TV and eating munchies until their parents come home to fix dinner.
I think it is now clear where the root of the problem lies…no need to blame it on kids eating namkeens and samosa.

2 comments

  1. We had only one TV channel, the State run "Doordarshan" with few hours of programming each week. We were happy with that. Every evening we picked up our hockey sticks/football/cricket bats and played for two hours in the sun. Today, very few children would be inclined to play in the dirt when they can chat on the facebook in an air conditioned room. We had many local Indian games also. Today, the concept of playing has disappeared. I find children moving around in groups trying to be adults. We played during our teens. Now, as soon as kids hit 14 they abandon playing and roam around. I think the Indian kids have developed the concept of what is "cool" and what is "uncool". Playing in the dirt is definitely "uncool" now. There were no junk foods and dininig out was unheard of.


    I lived in a government colony since my father was a government official. Each apartment block had designated space for children. Now, I find they have shrunk that space with concrete to make parking for cars. Cars have become more important than kids. I live in an apartment where cars are always zipping around. I wonder whether these children would ever know the pleasure of playing in wide open spaces.


    Adults have become lazy and vulnerable. In olden days a water cooler was the ultimate cooling device. We also drank from an earthen pot for many years. Now, we need AC. Schools/offices are air conditioned. Metro is air conditioned. We leave our air conditioned offices, hop into the air metro/car and reach home. Most houses have ACs. Nobody wants to go out except in the winters. We don't get to experience the sunlight these days. This is causing all kinds of deficiencies. Delhi, thankfully has more open spaces than any other city. We are really moving into a dangerous territory as far as health is concerned.

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  2. I noticed the same resistance to climate here with people, I kept taking ishita out as much as possible, Summer heat, or monsoon be damned, but it seems that as soon as the Winter leaves us kids stay indoor because the elements are hostile and life should be spent in AC. AC is something I Switch on only at night or during nap time on a particularly hot day, the rest of the time I insist on finding other ways to stay cool : less heavy clothing, more water intake...preferably chilled, homemade popsicles made with fruit juice, salad meals, a cold shower.
    During the monsoon, I am still out unless it's pouring down heavily, jumping into puddles is anyway fun for kids. Kids in Switzerland also spend a bit less time outdoor nowaday but not to the extent I am seeing here in Mumbai, because connecting to the outdoor is very deep rooted in Swiss culture, and even schools make playing outdoor at recess mandatory twice a day, and a rainy day is not a valid excuse not to go play outdoor at recess (school last 6-7 hours a day over there) and recess is 20 minutes in the morning, 20 in the afternoon.
    I think during the mosoon this year only Ishita and another boy were out regularly, the boy's grand father worked for many years in my hometown of Geneva and was the one taking him out to the playground, so I guess he got into the Swiss outdoor groove and his passing it to his son who is one of the few kids like Ishita who has a wild imagination and is turning the park into an adventure full of pretend tigers, snakes, crocodiles and monsters :)

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