Childhood Obesity and its impact on Daily Function

When children are still in their infancy, round tummies and pudgy legs are cute and even encouraged. Pediatricians and other childhood clinicians emphasize the importance of providing children with plenty of nourishment including healthy fats in order to foster development. However, there comes a time in a child's life when fat rolls are no longer cute but are in fact dangerous to the child's health and ability to function.

According to the CDC (2018), 13.7 million children and adolescents in the United States between the ages of 2 and 19 years old are obese. Roughly 14% of children in the U.S. between the ages of 2 and 5 as well as 18% of 6 to 11 year-olds are considered obese (Centers for Disease Control). This leads us to an obvious question: What exactly does it mean when a child is considered obese?

A parent or clinician can determine if a child (or anyone for that matter) is overweight by using the Body Mass Index, which is calculated using weight and height measurements in order to determine body fat percentage. This percentage can be compared against charts (Centers for Disease Control) that reflect BMI readings of children across the U.S. in order to gauge a child's weight. Children whose BMI percentile is at or above 85 are considered overweight.

Obesity-related medical conditions are highly talked about and dangerous among the adult population, so what does this mean for children? According to the CDC, the negative consequences to a child's health are really not that much different from an adult. Immediate health risks from childhood obesity include: glucose-insulin imbalances and Type II diabetes, cardiovascular problems, asthma, anxiety, depression, joint and musculoskeletal problems, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, esophageal reflux, liver diseases, and gallstones to name a few (Centers for Disease Control).

According to the Childhood Obesity Foundation (2015), some children run a higher risk for obesity because of some of the following reasons:

  • Consume food and drinks that are high in sugar and fat on a regular basis such as fast food, candy, baked goods, and ESPECIALLY pop and other sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Are not physically active each day
  • Watch a lot of TV and play a lot of video games, activities that don't burn calories (sedentary time)
  • Live in an environment where healthy eating and physical activity are not encouraged
  • Eat to help deal with stress or social problems
  • Come from a family of overweight people where genetics may be a factor, especially if healthy eating and physical activity are not a priority in the family
  • Come from a low-income family who do not have the resources or time to make healthy eating and active living a priority
  • Are exposed to the aggressive marketing of energy-dense foods and beverages to children and families
  • Have a lack of information about sound approaches to nutrition
  • Have a lack of access, availability and affordability to healthy foods
  • Have a genetic disease or hormone disorder such as Prader-Willi syndrome or Cushing's syndrome (Childhood Obesity Foundation)

Childhood obesity can drastically hinder a child's ability to perform daily tasks, ranging from tasks that need to be done (i.e., schoolwork, chores, daily hygiene routines, sleep, etc.) and tasks that they may want to participate in (sports, playing with friends, etc.). While there are some legit medical reasons for childhood obesity, many cases can be prevented or changed if a child and their immediate caregivers are willing to make some lifestyle transformations.

Occupational therapy can play a relevant role in a child's life if obesity is the major barrier to functional participation.  Approaches would include:

  • A full evaluation of the child including medical conditions, barriers to functional performance, the child's daily routine, the child's favorite activities and preferences, etc.
  • Therapeutic exercise routines and schedules that would match the child's interest and engage them in regular movement.
  • Lifestyle redesign which would include reducing or eliminating maladaptive behaviors and habits that contribute to the child's obesity (i.e., screen time, food choices, etc.).
  • Cognitive or behavioral intervention which would be helpful for children who struggle with hidden issues that could be negatively impacting their ability to participate in healthy routines (i.e., anxiety, depression, stress, developmental or mental disorders, etc.)
  • Caregiver or family education in order to assist the child in staying consistent with their intervention plan. Parents or immediate caregivers have a lot of say and more power in determining whether or not the child sticks with healthy changes.

Consult with a pediatrician today if you think that your child is at risk for obesity. Proactively prevent medical and functional problems that your child would go through now and in the near future.