How School Keeps Kids Overweight:
By Dr. Richard Visser
Imagine you’re an overweight or obese child going to gym for physical education (PE).
You’re a kid, so you have an overwhelming desire to belong—to “fit in” with everyone else. But you have to change your clothes in front of the other kids, who make fun of how different you look. Then you put on the standard-issue exercise clothing, which doesn’t look the same on you as on the other kids, and doesn’t fit well, so you get teased more.
You’re the last one to be picked for a team, and your extra weight makes you slower than the other kids—plus you don’t usually participate in sports, so your skill level is lower than theirs—so you get ridiculed not only for your appearance, but for your lack of contribution to the team. Even during track, you’re jeered at as the last one to the finish line. You’re completely humiliated all during class, and then you have to go change your clothes in front of the other kids again. And, both now and when you’re older, people wonder why you don’t have positive thoughts about exercise.
When you think about gym class from an obese or overweight child’s standpoint, you realize that the PE classes available in elementary schools need a major overhaul before they can become useful in combating the current obesity epidemic.
All of the mini-sports currently offered as PE classes (baseball, basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, track, wrestling, tennis, aerobics, dance, gymnastics) not only require changing into and wearing specific uniforms, but that every student perform equally. Odds are, the overweight kids aren’t going to be at the same level as the athletic kids, and it will be obvious to everyone, so their self-esteem suffers. This can turn into a vicious cycle: lowered self-esteem causes unconscious emotional eating with excess calorie intake, which results in more weight, which drops self-esteem even further.
Adult gyms have a similar negative emotional effect on overweight kids. Parents who drag their kids to the gym with them may have good intentions (“We enjoy it, so our kids will, too”), but they’re doing more harm than good. The gym doesn’t mean anything to a child, because in a child’s world, a gym has no place. The gym doesn’t make life better. It won’t make them cool and won’t get rid of the teasing.
When you look through the eyes of an overweight child and consider his or her issues, traditional exercise—whether through PE classes or at a gym—doesn’t solve any problems, and can even backfire if the kids begin to dread activity.
So what will meet the emotional needs of overweight children while also helping them be more active? For boys, though some girls would benefit too, martial arts are a way out of the vicious cycle. Not offered as a PE class at most schools, though they should be, martial arts classes can be a great after-school or weekend activity.
The usual defense method preferred by overweight boys who are being bullied—and most are—is self-isolation, by escaping into other worlds with games or computers. Martial arts teach physical techniques that work, and show results from the very first class, when students become white belts. The other kids at school may immediately curb their teasing, because they don’t know what a white belt learns. Physical self-defense is particularly useful for boys, who are dealing with violent teasing that crosses the line into physical abuse. Obese boys live in perpetual fear—they’re scared not only of the verbal barbs when the boys in the locker room notice their larger breasts, but of the painful “twisters” that follow.
Benefits of Martial Arts
- Martial arts uniforms cover the student’s body completely and may look better on children with more “meat on their bones.”
- Students advance through each level at their own pace.
- The instructor and class provide a positive social setting.
There are three main types of self-defense based martial arts styles: all three are stand-up styles, where punching, kicking, and blocking are the basic techniques. Japanese Karate, Chinese Kung Fu (Shaolin is one type), and Korean Tae Kwon Do are the most widely available and popular. Make sure the program you select is directed toward kids: Look at the schedule and see if most classes are for kids, observe some sessions, and talk to other parents. Don’t forget to ask for a free introductory session so your child can test-drive the class.
Parents and children should share the same goals and motivations when enrolling in martial arts. Martial arts teach
- Fitness, like strength, balance, and flexibility;
- Mental abilities or life skills like self-control, goal-setting, discipline, patience, and courage;
- Self-confidence, personal responsibility, and self-structure;
- Techniques for conflict resolution and self-defense.
The issues girls face are different, since girls have an emotional need to belong to their social circle. The worst thing to do is place them in ballet or jazz classes, where they have to change their clothing and then look totally different from the other kids in the class. Being called a “hippo in a tutu” is devastating for a child, so sports where regular, everyday clothing can be worn are essential, like hip-hop or street dancing.
The same dancing styles seen in music videos, street dancing is physically and mentally challenging but doesn’t seem like exercise to the child. As they learn the latest pop-star steps from a video, online, or in a dance class, they
- Progress through the steps at their own pace;
- Are encouraged to bring their own unique, personal style to the moves;
- Aren’t required to buy equipment or wear a uniform.
When overweight girls start b-girling (breakdancing), their peers draw them back in to share these “super-cool” moves. And because it’s gratifying to be back in her social group, she’ll keep dancing, and eventually the exercise will remove the obstacles she faces in joining any other physical activity. Street dance can also work for boys, since MTV frequently shows b-boying.
Since traditional PE classes and gyms constitute torture for overweight kids, parents need to find outlets where their kids can experience active play as a positive part of their lives. Martial arts and street dancing are perfectly suited to introducing overweight boys and girls to physical activities where they will thrive and have fun. Certainly, these aren’t the only activities that can change a child’s mind about exercise—and that’s just the point. Get into the mind of a child, and choose exercise with benefits the child will recognize.
Dr. Richard Visser recently completed clinical research on 10,000 children and the obesity pandemic in Latin America and the United States. He’s the director of the Visser Wellness and Research Center in Aruba, as well as CEO of SimplyH, LLC and Simply Toddler, LLC in Los Angeles. Dr. Visser works worldwide to raise awareness of proper nutrition for healthy and fit toddlers and children.