Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The kids aren't alright

Date: September 13
Mileage: 23.8
September mileage: 108

Right now I work as a wire editor, which basically means I have my pick of dozens of national and world news articles to run in our local paper. Recently, one of my coworkers accused me of running "too many fat-kid stories." I can't help if all the published scientists are so single-mindedly focused on obesity (well, that and global warming.) I think these reports are justified. They scare me, too.

The latest study is saying that one in five children younger than 18 will be obese by 2010. Not pudgy. Not slightly overweight. Obese. It makes me wonder where these kids find the time to put on all this weight. You can't tell me that 20 percent of the youth population is genetically predisposed.

I guess what I don't understand is exactly when it got so bad. I come from "Generation Y," albeit the very, very front edge of it. But we had video games and Carl's Jr. and 7,578.2 satellite channels. We ate Doritos and Dr. Pepper for lunch and zoned out in front of the computer for hours (back in the days when texting was still called "chatting.") Now that I've joined the line of cane-waving, "back-in-my-day" generations, I'm just trying to make sense of the great health epidemic of our time, and why it seems to be hitting the youngest generation (Generation Z? Generation iPod?) so hard.

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote an opinion column for my school newspaper decrying exercise as an egomaniacle waste of time. Teenagers don't need to "exercise," I reasoned, because a teenager's life is exercise. They participate in school sports. They thrash around for hours at rock shows. The financially strapped among them (of which I was one) have to walk everywhere (because, when I was 17, it was not cool to ride a bike.) "Kids only exercise," I wrote, "because they're vain and think a few situps are going to make them look like Gwen Stefani." Yup. I had it all figured out.

I would have been royally outraged if the government tried to take away my Dr. Pepper machine. I would have laughed at efforts to slim down school lunch (we wouldn't even eat the greasy junk they served.) But, most of all, I didn't want someone telling me to spend precious hours of youth lifting weights or running on a hamster wheel, when there was a world of real fun right in front of me. It made so much sense then. What happened?

The thought of what children must be doing that causes them to grow so large almost scares me more than the public health implications. Could they really be spending that much more time staring mindlessly at screens, downing an endless supply of processed food until they're too numb and stuffed to think? That's bleak. It's one thing to eat yourself into an early grave. It's another to waste away in a soulless existence.

I know that obesity is a complicated issue, and I believe it's not always a matter of lifestyle choices. Some children are genetically predisposed. Others struggle with larger issues such as poverty and parental indifference, issues that often accompany unhealthy lifestyles. But how can we help the rest? Those overwhelmed with such rapt indifference that they let the world go by through their television monitors and turn to food for the shallow sparks of joy food can provide? If only somehow we could make biking cool. That, I have faith, would solve everything.