Research Update: Battling Obesity Is All in the Family: Recreation Professionals Can Help Prevent Childhood Obesity

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Recreation and leisure service professionals are constantly improving their services in an effort to meet the changing needs of their populations. The childhood obesity epidemic is one such changing need demanding the attention and action of all who serve youth and families.

"Obesity has become the most common pediatric chronic disease in the modern era. Early prevention and treatment of childhood and adolescent obesity is mandated," says Nemet. According to Nemet, "the mechanisms responsible for the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity are not understood completely ..." Berkey, Rockett, Gillman, and Colditz (2003) acknowledged the need to learn more about these causes:

Modifying dietary, activity, and inactivity patterns is difficult after lifelong habits are established, and thus changing these habits during adolescence before they become ingrained is critical. Thus, we need to know more about determinants of activity and inactivity in older children and what behavior-change strategies will succeed in this age group.

"The increased prevalence of obesity and the scarce positive long-term results of its treatment highlight the need of its prevention," explain Caroli and Lagravinese (2002). Scientific data pointing to specific successful approaches are very limited and few prevention programs geared toward children exist. Studies related to childhood obesity prevention have been predominantly from school or health care settings and have usually included dietary changes, physical activity, behavior and social modifications, or family participation (Caballero, 2004). Recreation professionals can aid in prevention efforts by using existing knowledge to guide program modifications.

How Can Recreation Professionals Help?

Recreation and leisure providers can help prevent childhood obesity by starting with the family. Behaviors exhibited by parents and guardians in the home heavily affect the behaviors of their children. Fredricks and Eccles (2005) pointed out the family can influence children's beliefs and participation in sport and recreational physical activity in a variety of ways, including: (a) being a role model by coaching or participating themselves, (b) interpreting their child's experience and teaching him or her the value of participating in sport, and (c) providing emotional support and positive experiences for their child's involvement in sport and physical activities.

Neumark-Sztainer (2005) identified that while parents play an ever-important role in the battle of obesity, it is almost impossible for families to do it on their own. Americans of all ages encounter images and influences that relate to weight and body image on a daily basis. All of these negative influences cannot be avoided, but if more time is spent focused on leading a healthier lifestyle, the exposure to negative societal factors can be minimized.

Offering programs that encourage family participation can be a key factor in reaching the goal of a healthier population. For example, cooking classes geared toward families can be modified to fit almost any facet of recreation services and may assist families in getting back together for family meals. As Neumark-Sztainer (2005) says, "families need support from their children's schools, their own work sites, and their communities in making regular family meals easier to achieve."

In addition, Americans are looking for fitness services from most recreation departments (Ostrander, 2004). Hornig (2005) says that activity promotes physical and mental health, and the decisions of recreation professionals have a direct effect on the quality of the environment where these activities take place. Offering activities involving families in some sort of physical activity could be an important step in the prevention of obesity. Many departments currently offer sports and other physical opportunities, but rarely with activities that involve the entire family. …