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WHEN 4-YEAR-OLD CONLEY RAIDT OF AUSTIN, TX, asked another little girl at the park if she wanted to play recently, the kid replied, "No! You're fat!" It wasn't the first time Conley had been teased about her weight: All her life, even grown-ups have been pinching Conley's cheeks and saying things like "Looks like you're getting your share of french fries." But it was the first time Conley got upset, says her mom, Kate Raidt.
Even though Raidt knew her little girl was pudgy, she had no idea just how overweight Conley was until her 2-year checkup, when the pediatrician calculated her body mass index (BMI) to be in the 95th percentile—earning Conley the official designation of "obese." Raidt was floored. Although Conley had been a big baby, almost nine pounds at birth, "she had never had fast food or soda," her mom says. But Conley was a very fast eater; she would scarf down her meals and ask for seconds. "I would give her more, but even though it was healthy, it was still calories," says Raidt.
The inactivity crisis
Conley Raidt has plenty of company when it comes to weight issues. The latest research shows, incredibly, that 17 percent of kids ages 2 to 19 today are obese -- and a third are overweight. The crisis has reached such epidemic proportions that First Lady Michelle Obama has just launched a nationwide "Let's Move!" campaign with the goal of eliminating childhood obesity in a generation, and President Obama has established a government task force on childhood obesity.
There's no question that high-calorie, super-size kids' meals from the local drive-through and packaged convenience foods are a big reason kids today are packing on the pounds. But what many parents may not realize is that half of all preschoolers also don't get enough exercise, according to Avery Faigenbaum, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science who specializes in children at The College of New Jersey, in Ewing. Researchers aren't sure why—the natural inclination of a preschooler is not to even want to sit still long enough to eat—but they do know that kids are logging 90 minutes per day in front of a TV or video-game screen, plus another 90 doing sedentary activities like coloring or looking at books (not that those aren't perfectly fine things for preschoolers to be doing!). And it doesn't seem to get much better once they hit grade school: A study in the journal Young Children found that kids get only 10 to 15 minutes of outdoor playtime each day—which is huge, because other research shows that if a child simply spends time outside, he'll get more physical activity.
The sad thing is, if a kid isn't getting enough exercise at age 3, he's probably not going to get enough down the road, putting him at risk for being too fat now and later: Eighty percent of obese teens will grow up to be obese adults. Even worse, some of the health risks associated with adults being overweight or obese are showing up in kids. "We're seeing fatty streaks in the blood vessels of children who are eight and ten," says Faigenbaum. "On the outside, they look like little kids, but on the inside, they look thirty—or older." Yikes!