There is relatively well documented evidence that childhood obesity has increased across the last decade or more, with numerous concerns about this shared by persons who feel some responsibility to manage the consequences manifested physically as well as psychologically. The physical costs of obesity across a lifetime are staggering, and the psychological costs on a day to day basis can be overwhelming as manifested in symptoms of anxiety and depression. When a child entering adolescence at age twelve begins to develop a self identity as an obese person, it is not surprising that he or she would begin to suffer psychological symptoms of anxiety and depression - - which Peter Gray (2010) and Twenge (2010) believe are significant if not growing problems for children and adolescents. In a social world where more and more children and adolescents are attuned to the critical judgments regarding appearance and presentation of those around them, obesity can become a “problem” they feel hopeless about, with this directly leading to the depression of learned helplessness. A direct focus on obesity may be misguided, however, because it is highly likely that some obese children and adolescents are not particularly distressed about being obese. Rather, then, it may make sense to concern ourselves with the anxiety and depression which some of the obese deal with because of being obese. There may be reason for hope given this focus.
Researchers have found that while there may be a genetic component to obesity in children (Ruiz et al., 2010), regular exercise can attenuate and help children overcome the effects of these obesity-related genetic traits. In addition and across a number of studies, there is quite solid evidence that there is a strong correlation between exercise and obesity. In one study, vigorous physical activity was the only one of seven dietary or exercise related variables that lowered the risk of obesity (Patrick et al., 2004). This is exciting in that children, with the right kind of mentoring and assistance, can do something about their obesity since exercise is a self controlled aspect of life. Given that there is a wealth of evidence that exercise is one of the most robust treatment factors for overcoming or managing anxiety and depression (PCPFS Research Digests), it is even more exciting to realize that encouraging, teaching, and expecting children to exercise in real life (rather than in the virtual worlds of first person shooter games) is likely to reduce the obesity while at the same time providing the child options for affirmation of his or her body and an enjoyable encounter with life via a healthy body. Because current developmental psychologists are convinced children fundamentally enjoy social and play activities and because most people report pleasure during and following social encounters and exercise (Gray, 2010), parents and professionals who feel responsible to deal with the consequences of obesity are challenged to engage children in “organic” play and socially intrinsic exercise, not just because it helps combat anxiety but because life is lived more fully as a result.
--Ian Birky, PhD
Director, University Counseling and Psychological Services