NEW YORK (JTA) — As we become a society of couch potatoes, our health declines. Americans are eating more and moving less, and unfortunately, these habits are rubbing off on our children.
Food marketing has led to increased portion sizes and added sugars, salts and fats, while the advent of new technologies has had the unintended effect of decreasing physical activity. More than ever, American kids eat loads of junk food and spend much more time texting, watching television and playing video games than running around and being active.
Researchers estimate that only about 20 percent of children meet basic activity level recommendations and 25 percent are completely sedentary. At the same time, the foods we eat have become larger and more calorie-dense over the past 20 years. Bagels and pizza slices are almost double the size they used to be, and certain beverage cups can now hold an entire bottle of soda.
These changes in the American lifestyle have increased children’s risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and many other health conditions. Indeed, children are increasingly succumbing to adult diseases — so much so that doctors have changed the term adult-onset diabetes to type II diabetes because so many children have the disease.
The Jewish community is not immune to this trend. Original research by Dr. Mendel Singer, director of the Jewish Community Health Initiative and a professor at Case Western Reserve Medical School, shows that Jewish children are almost as likely to be obese as their non-Jewish counterparts. In fact, Singer found that Jewish children in certain pockets of the community are substantially more likely to be obese.
Part of the reason for these troubling findings is that children who attend Jewish day schools study a joint Jewish and secular curriculum, which means 10 hours per day sitting in school, and then going home and sitting for a few more hours of homework. Physical education is often deemed less important than other subjects, so kids are sedentary for most of the time they spend in school. Moreover, in many Orthodox day schools, fitness activities are further restricted because of limitations on coed exercise.
Unfortunately, Jewish adults are not doing any better. We have a food-centric culture in which the highlight of each week is often an elaborate Shabbat meal that is rich in fat and calories and can last late into the night — it’s like having Thanksgiving dinner every week. We justify these meals by saying things like “calories don’t count on Shabbat,” but it’s time that we become honest with ourselves. As a community, we like to cook and eat but we don’t like to exercise very much. The average Jewish family is more likely to eat a lavish meal together than go for a walk or kick around a soccer ball.
Parents should set an example for their kids by adopting healthy lifestyles for themselves. This means more fruits and vegetables, less oil, salt and sugar, and a far more active lifestyle. Instead of watching television as a family, parents should encourage walking, hiking and other healthy activities.
At the same time, our Jewish day schools should recognize that physical activity is just as important as Hebrew and algebra, and should modify their curriculums to make physical activity a major part of the day. This can be as simple as creating a schedule that makes children walk across the school to get from one class to another, or shortening every period by a few minutes to make more time for organized physical activity. Schools also might consider bringing in professional dieticians and exercise instructors to teach children about exercising at home and making smart food choices.
Summer camps are also great places for children not only to be active, but to learn how to lead a healthy lifestyle at home.
It’s up to all of us to make sure that today’s Jewish children grow up to be tomorrow’s healthy adults.
(Aliza Wadler Solomon, a graduate student in public health, is working closely with Camp Zeke, a new Jewish overnight camp that immerses kids in pure foods, energizing fitness activities and culinary arts.)