Researchers at Temple University released the findings of a study this week which found that 14 percent of Philadelphia teenagers are obese. Three out of four report wanting to lose weight, but their actions—drinking soda, smoking, playing video games for hours a day—suggest just the opposite.
The Temple team, led by public health doctoral candidate Clare Lenhart, culled data from the nearly 44,000 local adolescents who participated in the Philadelphia Youth Risk Behavioral Survey. Girls, they discovered, were more likely to get 60 minutes of exercise a day; but the same group also reported drinking full-sugar soda (not diet) at least once a day. Boys who said they wanted to lose weight were more likely to report no daily physical activity, and they admitted to spending lots of time planted in front of video games.
“From a health education standpoint, finding out that three-quarters of students who are obese want to lose weight is exactly what we want,” said Lenhart in a statement. “But the behavior they’re engaging in is puzzling; it’s counterproductive to what they’re trying to do.”
The statement goes on to say that Lenhart “is encouraged that so many teens appear to be motivated to lose weight” and that “a more intensive line of questioning from health care providers could help.”
Eh, I’m not so sure. I think there’s already plenty of knowledge to go around about how to lead a healthy life, so it’s hard to believe that “more intensive” discussions with doctors would make much of a difference. And I don’t find these kids’ behavior puzzling at all: I think they’re more than aware that what they’re doing is counterproductive to their goals. Soda = sugar = bad; video games = sitting on your butt = bad. It’s not rocket science.
I think obesity is reaching the point that smoking did maybe 15 or so years ago: Society’s message has gotten across crystal clear—we all know it’s unhealthy—but some people choose to smoke, anyway. Most people know they shouldn’t eat fast food every day for lunch and dinner, that it’ll have ill effects on their health (ever see Supersize Me?), but some people choose to do it, anyway. Perhaps there’s an underlying reason—income, access, even genes—for why a person eats poorly or doesn’t exercise. But that doesn’t mean he’s unaware that those behaviors are bad for him.
Maybe instead of filling people’s heads with more knowledge, we should focus on giving them options—real choices—for how to lead healthier lives. Maybe what these kids lack are the tools they need to get their eating and weight under control: after-school athletic programs, neighborhood restaurants with healthy options, nearby grocery stores with robust produce sections.
As the data points out, most of these kids know they have a problem, and I’m betting they could give you at least three reasons why. But maybe they don’t know where to begin undoing the damage. Or how.