This NYT article highlights a new study from Johns Hopkins that tracked infant movements and baby “belly fat” every 3 months in the first year of life. They report that babies who moved the least generally were also the babies with the most fat around their middles. The authors who are researchers in public health of course acknowledged that infants are not expected to be slim. I certainly adore seeing my infant patients who have the cherubic cheeks, tummies and thighs, with rolls and creases that may not see sunlight.
But this new study causes me concern as a mother, surgeon and researcher passionate about children’s health and the future health of Americans. We now know that lack of movement is a significant risk factor and increases mortality in adults. In fact, sitting for more than 8 hours per day increases mortality by 35% in adults! Who would have thought that a “healthy” adult who doesn’t smoke, doesn't drink excessive alcohol, wears a seatbelt, and is perhaps not overweight or obese, can have an increased risk of death from a job or daily routine which has imposed lack of movement (I didn’t say exercise) and sitting at a desk.
Why are infants moving less? Even if the mothers, parents, caretakers of American infants do not have a job that requires sitting at a desk all day, how is our current state of adult lives and our reality of “electronic devices” impacting our infants and children?
Is it possible that we no longer just have babies roll around on the floor while we patiently and fully watch them to ensure they are safe? Perhaps our inability to be “still” in the moment, our easily distracted mind, and constant focus on our cell phones—Facebook, Instagram, shopping on Amazon, and reading about the same “news” of dysfunctional government—decreased opportunities for increased activity for ourselves and our children. Have we unintentionally as a society decreased activity for recent generations of children due to our own increasingly sedentary lifestyles?
Are parents putting babies in confined playpens, baby swings and strapped in high chairs so that we can get more work “done” while making sure we can keep an eye on our otherwise crawling older infants? If American adults are moving less, our children are also moving less. If the adults are not committed to their own health, making sure that they themselves commit to walking, biking, hiking, and planning time for physical movement, how can their children be expected to have planned adequate time to play and move like we are biologically intended to do and must do to decrease the risk of obesity?
We are an amazing country full of parks and play areas with public access, but perhaps not enough children are there often enough. I often overhear grown ups talk about how life is so different now, how when they were growing up, they “roamed” around and played outside until dark and there was such “freedom” and their parents didn’t seem to worry. Nowadays most children are driven and dropped off to and from school and activities, and they are no longer riding their own bikes or walking. Of course I wouldn’t let my daughter, Claire, do that either since the world no longer seems “safe”.
“Most school-age children in the United States sit for more than eight hours a day, while children as young as 2 or 3 years of age can be sedentary for 90 percent or more of their waking hours.”
Don’t forget that for most public schools, physical education has been eliminated due to “budget” cuts. Between the insult of unhealthy foods and margins for industry, invasion of life from electronics, and society choosing to turn a blind eye and not bothering to teach to increase awareness of health and factors that determine health, it’s hard to be optimistic. But one look at any cherubic infant, and the promise of a healthy life that awaits he or she, I can’t give up and none of us should.
As I meet patients and families every day, there appear to be two groups: those whose children are involved in various sports, like soccer, baseball, basketball, and those who are not. When I ask the question of whether the child is engaged in sports or other physical activities, often there is silence or a quiet response of "no" with a hint of acknowledgment and regret. Parents and caretakers usually admit and confirm a child who isn’t involved in sports simply plays video games on their phone or devices and is sedentary, watching YouTube.
The bottomline is that we the adults must do our best, day after day, to make sure we move as much as we can, indoors or out, and our children move also. Movement is what tells the body we need to make more energy and informs the body there is a need to build, repair, and stay strong.
May the cherubs in your life grow up to play sports, ride their bikes, and move, all the while eating healthy, so that they won’t grow up with an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and a life full of possible ailments that our current severely impaired health system and healthcare delivery will unlikely solve in a truly sustaining and healing way.
Learn how diet and dietary habits in children can impact their ear, nose and throat health. Watch more videos on my YouTube channel.