Work Causes Adult Obesity. Does Play Cause It for Kids?

child obesity, health in workplace

We don't burn enough calories at work anymore. Do kids burn enough calories at play?

New research into the causes of adult obesity has found that a change in the typical workplace is a big reason so many people in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Back in the 1960s, half of all American jobs required moderate physical activity. Now, only 20 percent of them do — the rest require, at most, light physical activity.

A study confirming that we’re a sedentary workforce feels kind of obvious. But when you look at the numbers, you get a more refined picture of how we got to where we are. It also makes me wonder, if we don’t burn enough calories at work anymore, do kids burn enough calories at play?

We already know kids are way more sedentary now than they used to be — but how much more? For adults, the shift was going from production to office jobs. What was it for kids? We can’t only blame all screens great and small, can we? What about the fact that kids have to be constantly supervised these days. Have kids slowed down because Moms there at the park with them? And what about the fact that Mom drove them there in the first place?

The workplace study found that Americans adults burn between 120 and 140 calories less per day now than they did back in the ’60s, which, as Tara Parker-Pope points out in The New York Times, matches the average weight gain of adult Americans over the last 50 years. Those unburned calories, even just 120 a day, accumulate, turn into fat, you know the drill.

The fact that fewer adults these days are farmers, factory line workers and longshoreman (of the Marlon Brando variety — lifting boxes with our hands) and more of us sit in front of a computer all day — and that we’re fatter for it — is pretty obvious.

But what about kids? How many fewer calories are they burning a day? When did that number start rising and is it at all connected with the increase in child abduction fears in our society? Yes, kids watch a lot of TV, but plenty of kids wouldn’t if they had a better alternative, and one that didn’t involve a parent.

To be sure, the study doesn’t blame the workplace only for overweight and obesity in the U.S. We eat too much — for whatever reasons. And kids do, too. Our food choices aren’t always great, but they’re definitely very cheap. On and on.

But in terms of those calories burned just by doing what you do — how can we get back up to the level of 1960? Just 120 calories in a day? That’s a brisk 20-minute walk, a half hour of swimming, a short jog. Everyday. Or, I suppose, you could take a job on a meat-packing kill floor, work on the line of a printing press (better to work where you’re stacking the pallets), road construction, diving for pearls. I don’t know. Physical jobs … weekends off!

For kids, though, it means more than P.E. once a week, or Little League on Saturdays (especially if it’s followed by a Capri Sun and Oreos). What it means for kids is going outside after school and coming home in time for dinner. Or running around the neighborhood. Riding bikes to the beach and returning at sundown. Whole days spent on the move. My kids are getting older and I have real memories of my own life when I was their age. Oh, the freedom I had in comparison — and I always considered my parents overly protective.

I don’t imagine we’ll give up our jobs spent thinking and not lifting anytime soon. I also don’t imagine our fearful modern society will stop thinking child services should be called every time a young kid rides a subway without his mom.

But now that we know we’re spending large chunks of time not burning up our energy stores — something we used to do back in our society’s salad days — maybe someone will come up with a good idea of how we can. Conference call on the treadmill? Blocking off car access on weekends so kids can run around?

It’s just a part of the obesity epidemic perfect storm — this and this are also a part of it — but it’s something to keep in mind, don’t you think? And not bad solutions like this.

Photo: kevin krejci via flickr

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