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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Childhood Obesity: How Summer Camp Can Help

Feb 08, 2010 12:00AM

Obesity in children has reached epidemic proportions, and experts agree that children are overweight not just because they eat too much. They’re also overweight because they are not physically active.

The American Camp Association® (ACA), Northern California, suggests that summer camp might be the perfect prescription for keeping children active and healthy.

The Problem

According to the American Obesity Association, about 30 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight and 15 percent are obese. This is serious, because many adverse health effects, including asthma, hypertension and diabetes, are associated with being overweight. Also, being overweight can be psychologically harmful. Overweight children and adolescents report that people assume negative things about them, accusing them of being lazy, for example. Teasing about their appearance affects children’s confidence and self-esteem and can lead to isolation and depression.

Children who are overweight tend to grow up into overweight adults, who have a higher risk of developing serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer and high blood pressure. The risk of health problems increases the more overweight a person becomes.

The Causes

Few children are overweight because of an underlying medical problem. Most put on excess pounds because they eat an unhealthy diet and get little exercise, which is easy to understand. High-calorie foods are abundant, fairly cheap and heavily promoted, and today’s youth are the most inactive generation in history. Exercise is no longer a regular part of their lives. Some children never walk or bike to school, or play any kind of sport. Many schools and community organizations have curtailed or eliminated their PE and sports programs.

Many children spend hours in front of a television or computer, an average of 22 to 25 hours a week watching TV according to the National Institute on Media and the Family. The amount of TV watching is directly associated with obesity. In addition to those long hours of inactivity, children often consume high-calorie foods while watching TV. That is one reason the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit the time children watch television or play videogames to one to two hours a day.

How Camp Can Help

“It is more important than ever for our youth to be physically active when they are not in school,” states Sari VanOtegham, president of the ACA Northern California. “At camp, children and youth participate in healthy activities that contribute to the growth of healthy habits.”

Because they are rooted in experiential learning, summer camps provide opportunities for children to exercise, opportunities that are often not available in school and are certainly not available watching TV or playing video games. While the type, amount and intensity of exercise vary depending on the camp, in general kids get a fair amount of exercise at camp, helping them improve their health, self-esteem and academic performance.

Here are 7 of the ways camps can help kids become healthier.

  1. Eating Habits – At camp kids are exposed to wholesome, healthy food. Many camps are offering more fruits and vegetables, and have reduced fried, sugary or other high-calorie meals and snacks. Camp offers the opportunity for kids to “taste test” new foods. Resident camps serve breakfast, which by its nature encourages kids to eat it. Also, kids eat meals while sitting with fellow campers instead of “on the run,” as often happens when families are too busy to sit down together. Some camps even provide formal nutrition classes to educate children about healthy eating. While eating habits take awhile to develop, at least for a time the campers' bodies get a tasty diet that emphasizes nutrition. And, according to research conducted by the ACA, 63 percent of children who learn new activities at camp continue these activities after they return home.
  2. Increased Activity – The American Council on Exercise recommends everyone get at least 60 minutes of moderately intense physical activity a day. Ideally children should engage in flexibility games and exercises as well as muscular fitness activities at least three times a week, and do some active aerobics, sports and recreation activities each day. Fortunately, most camp programs are synonymous with activity from walking to field games. Camps offer a great opportunity to encourage physical challenges, teach lifelong active pursuits, and learn active lifestyle behaviors. Camp, by definition, takes kids away from TV and video games and shows them they can have a good time without being entertained. This is particularly important today when so many kids have lost the art of playing.
  3. Range of Activities – Camps offer a range of new and traditional activities, sports, contests and games, which are fun and active. Many of the activities involve teams, helping kids develop teamwork, respect, responsibility and communication. This helps develop camaraderie and increases their sense of community.
  4. Other activities – such as hiking, horseback riding and swimming – are individual sports. Many of these activities require little or no equipment, making it easy for children to take this new expertise with them and participate in the activity on their own, even unto adulthood. In effect, camp can help teach kids healthy skills for a lifetime. Often, kids can choose at least some of their camp activities, giving them the opportunity to improve existing skills and sample activities they wouldn’t usually try. Most kids are more willing to try new things in the socially protected camp environment, where they can sample an activity or sport without a major commitment. Because the children are often with a different group than their usual friends, less “stigma” is involved as they learn new skills.
  5. Coaching – Some children do not participate in sports simply because they do not know how to play or how to play well. At ACA-Accredited® camps, trained counselors provide the instruction. Youngsters often get more individualized help at camp because the ratio of coaches to kids is more favorable than in many PE classes. Competitive and Non-competitive Environments – Some children do not take part in sports because they are so competitive. The “Little League Syndrome,” with its strong emphasis on winning, can create tension in many youngsters. And the “no pain, no gain” philosophy can be counter-productive for kids, who will likely drop any activity that is not fun. ACA-Accredited camps provide both competitive and non-competitive activities. Kids can be in a competitive environment, or in an environment that teaches them to compete against themselves, not others, and that emphasizes that improvement is a reward in itself.
  6. Academic Achievement – Physically fit children perform better academically. A California Department of Education study showed a distinct relationship between academic achievement and the physical fitness of California’s public school students. The study found that higher achievement was associated with higher levels of fitness at each of the three grade levels measured. Students who met minimum fitness levels in three or more physical fitness areas showed the greatest gains in academic achievement at all three grade levels.
  7. Self Esteem – Studies show that one of the major benefits of summer camp is improved self-esteem, which partially comes from trying new things and learning new skills. And camps typically provide positive feedback when kids try something new, and emphasize participation rather than winning. In a recent study, 96 percent of the children said that camp helped them make new friends and 92 percent found that the people at camp helped them feel good about themselves. Whenever kids increase competency, they feel better about themselves and this carries over to other aspects of their lives. It’s generally accepted that kids take better care of themselves when they feel good about themselves. So a higher self-esteem can go hand-in-hand with better health and a reasonable weight.

Guidelines on Choosing a Camp

“Any physical education program should provide children with the knowledge, skills and confidence to participate in health-enhancing physical activity throughout their lives,” VanOtegham said. “No one program is better than another. The important thing is to match the program to your child.” To help you make that choice, the American Camp Association has a database of ACA-Accredited camps. ACA accreditation means that your child’s camp cares enough to undergo a thorough (more than 300 health and safety standards) review of its operation from staff qualifications and training to emergency management. Accreditation is voluntary and, while many good camps are not accredited, ACA accreditation assures families that camps have made the commitment to a safe, nurturing environment for their children.

About the American Camp Association

For nearly 100 years, ACA's community of camp professionals has joined together to share knowledge and experience and to promote positive human development by enriching the lives of children, youth, and adults through the camp experience. More than 7,000 individual members belong to the American Camp Association, which is the only national organization that accredits camps. There are more than 2,400 ACA-Accredited camps throughout the United States, which meet up to 300 health, safety, and programming standards.

To find an ACA-Accredited camp and to access other resources, visit www.acanorcal.org , phone 916-333-5344 or e-mail [email protected] . For more information about summer camps in general, visit www.campparents.org and www.acacamps.org .