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Join the Early Years Fit Generation: Fight the Obesity Crisis

Get ready, get set, get moving!

The fitness revolution starts here with our groundbreaking new 3-part program that will up your family's activity level and decrease the odds that your child will fall victim to the obesity crisis.

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!

Time to move it, move it

That's the bad news. Now here's the good: It's totally possible to get an idling kid in gear—off the couch, away from the screen, out the back door—and the preschool years are the best time to do it. "This is the age when bad and good habits take hold. If a preschooler is outside running and jumping and playing on a daily basis, then when he's nine and ten and older, he'll feel the need to go out and move," says Jennifer Helmcamp, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Texas A&M Health Science Center at Round Rock and Conley Raidt's pediatrician.

Dr. Helmcamp recommends commonsense dietary changes (more fruits and veggies, fewer carbs, water instead of juice); a family-wide approach to healthy eating; and an emphasis on outdoor play. In the year that Conley's been in the care of Dr. Helmcamp, her BMI has crept down steadily, from 19.9 to 17.6, and she's no longer considered obese, although she's still in the overweight range. "If she continues doing as well as she's been doing, I expect her to be at a normal BMI in another year," says Dr. Helmcamp, who stresses that for a kid Conley's age, the goal isn't to shed pounds but to maintain her current weight so that as she gets taller, she actually grows into it.

Parenting would like to see more kids beat obesity or avoid it in the first place, and simply get their fair share of activity. So starting now, we're issuing a call to action: For the next three months, we'll provide all the info and ammo you need in our Fit Generation program. Up first: getting a handle on your child's activity level with the Is Your Kid Active Enough Questionnaire.