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Dr. Zorba Paster: Part of beating obesity epidemic is getting kids outside

UPDATED: Wed., July 28, 2021

By Dr. Zorba Paster For The Spokesman-Review

Traveling yet? We are. Now that we’re immunized and COVID-19 deaths are toppling, Penny and I are hitting the road. First off to St. Louis to see Andre DeShields do Lear in “King Lear.” A must if you’re a Shakespeare fan.

DeShields was a good friend of mine back in the 1960s. He’s the Tony Award winner of the hit “Hadestown,” but with Broadway not “open,” he took a gig to do the noted “Shakespeare in the Park” in St. Louis. He was magnificent.

Now, stay with me for the moment while I connect this to obesity, both adult and childhood. St. Louis has a magical park, Forest Park, loaded with flowers of all sorts, golf courses, a free world-famous art museum filled with Matisse, Van Gough, Gauguin – not to be missed.

Forest Park is where Shakespeare is performed. So at the end of the play – spoiler alert – King Lear dies, and so does his favorite daughter who, in the typically tragic Shakespeare way, he has wronged.

In the St. Louis performance, DeShields, 75 years of age and all, holds her. She was maybe 140 pounds, my guess. He walks across the stage, depositing her on the ground and then dying in grief.

What a scene. And what an accomplishment. A 75-year-old fit enough to do a two-hour play and then carrying that “dead weight” across the stage. Really, who would be able to do that? It shows how regular exercise, eating good food, staying at the right weight, doing meaningful work and enjoying life pays off.

So, we’re in St. Louis, where obesity is king. Penny and I look down the street, look in the park, look at the kids who came to see the play. The majority of them, and their parents, are too heavy.

It’s a park where you picnic while you see the play, so I walk around stealthily looking at what I see in these picnic meals. And it is what you’d imagine: soft drinks at 250 calories a bottle, chips, lots of processed foods, etc.

But seeing the kids was what hit me in the gut. Overweight kids mean overweight adults. And what we’re not providing to our kids might be just what is causing this. A recent study in the British Medical Journal hits this home.

When youth centers in the U.K., places for kids to play where there are adults to supervise them, where they are encouraged to come, where they can shut off their mobile devices – when that was basically taken away by lack of funding, obesity, fatness in kids, rose.

As you can imagine, poorer neighborhoods were hit the hardest. In the U.K., when they stopped providing kids activities, the kids stayed at home, used their fingers and wrists to play video games rather than their arms and legs to run around, and obesity hit.

Back to traveling for a moment. A few weeks after our St. Louis trip, we went to visit our son Eli and his lovely wife, Xia. He lives in the Boston area, which gave us a chance to see Boston Commons and the surroundings.

What surprised us, what was right in front of our eyes, was that the obesity rate here, in adults and especially in kids, was not nearly as high. Not at all. So why this difference?

Undoubtedly lots of factors come into play, but Massachusetts and its local communities have parks with lots of activities and summer stuff outside for kids. They have decided this is a community problem that needs to be addressed, the result being lower obesity rates in Massachusetts than in Missouri.

Back to the study for a moment. In the U.K., they have a program called Sure Start – it’s where kids ages 5 and younger come to play, and moms learn about good nutrition for their kids and how to support physical activity.

The program started in 1999. When it was supported by the community, kids’ obesity in those areas dropped. When the program lost funding, kids in those areas started racking up the pounds. There was a linear relationship – less funding for kids meant more obesity.

My spin: When I was a kid, we were expected to go out and play – kick the can, play ball, whatever. But then again, we had black-and white TV with three stations and an awful educational station that no one would watch unless they were chained to a chair.

Kids today have so many electronic distractions that it’s producing a nation of overweight people. It’s time we support outside recreation and educate moms and dads on better nutrition for our kids so we can beat this obesity epidemic. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician and host of the public radio program “Zorba Paster on Your Health.” He can be reached at askzorba@doctorzorba.com.

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