Childhood Obesity and Participation in Sport, Recreation, and Leisure

By: Shayna T.

There is strong evidence that childhood obesity and overweight is rising rapidly in Canada (Tremblay & Willms, 2003). Obesity among Canadian children aged 7-13 years has tripled from 5 to 15% (Tremblay & Willms, 2000) between 1981 and 1996, and has continued to increase since then. It has been estimated that obesity had reached a cost of $51.6 billion in direct medical costs in the US in 1995 (Wolf & Colditz, 1998) and $1.8 billion in Canada in 1997 (Birmingham, et al., 1999).

In general, Canadians report that they are three times more likely to engage in passive leisure (i.e., playing video games, watching television, etc.) as opposed to active leisure (i.e., basketball, bicycle riding, etc.) Research has identified that obesity is viewed to be the least acceptable by peers. Research has also shown that children rate obese peers as less liked and less preferred as friends or playmates than they do non-obese peers or peers with other handicaps (Bell & Morgan, 2000).

I believe that it is the continuous exclusion of overweight and obese children from activities by their peers that indulges them to participate in passive leisure and sedentary behaviours as much as they do. However, the more time they spend on passive leisure and sedentary behaviours, the more likely they are to worsen their problem of being overweight or obese. But it is this lifestyle that gives them their sense of belonging since they do not feel that they belong anywhere else. Children can also feel excluded by parents who do not support them in their extra-curricular activities. Children are more susceptible to engage in sedentary behaviours and to be obese or overweight if they are living in a single-parent family or low socioeconomic status, or both, as suggested by Tremblay & Willms (2003).

So how do we make overweight and obese children feel like they belong? The answers are complex, but it is my opinion that parents need to teach their children values, empathy, compassion, manners, and other positive behaviours towards others, and they also need to lead healthier lifestyles. I understand that obesity and being overweight can be inherited through genetics, but the vast majority of obese children come from poor parenting by letting kids eat what they want, when they want; using the television as a babysitter; supplying youth with technology and devices (i.e., iPads) which consume them at a young age, and so on and so forth.

However, I cannot blame all parents. I have had the pleasure of working with children who seem to have had very good parenting thus far. In my experiences with obese youth, I have witnessed things from both ends of the spectrum. As you typically hear, obese or overweight children are often excluded from activities at school, cut from sports teams, or are the last ones picked for a team in gym class. However, when I was in grade twelve I was required to teach an elementary Phys. Ed class as a part of my Outdoor Pursuits course. I got to spend one hour with the grade 3/4 class doing an obstacle course.

One boy in particular was quite a bit bigger than the rest of the children. Except, rather than being excluded by his peers, he made the decision himself to sit out. As Tremblay & Willms (2003) stated: “it may be that children who are prone to overweight and obesity may also be prone to living a more sedentary lifestyle; that is obesity and overweight can discourage children from participating”. When we asked him why he was choosing not to participate in the activity his response was “I do not want to slow my team down”. I was amazed that a child this young knew that he was slightly different and blamed himself for being the reason his peers could not enjoy an activity. However, with much encouragement, we convinced him to participate in the activity with the rest of his class and the result was phenomenal.

“On your mark, get set, and GO!” The students began to race their way through the course. Near the end we began to hear screaming and laughter coming from his team. As I turned to see what the commotion was all about, I came to see that his entire team were on their feet jumping up and down and cheering for him as he made his way through the obstacles. The more his team cheered for him, the bigger the smile was on his face. My partner and I ran along side him encouraging him on his final stretch to the finish line, “Come on!” “You can do it!” “You’re almost there!”. As he crossed the finish line his team ran to circle around him and cheer for him as they had won the race. It was amazing to see such a young group of kids know the importance of encouragement and support and to be able to show such empathy and compassion towards this student without being asked.

In conclusion, obesity is one of the most overwhelming reasons as to why children do not participate in active leisure, recreation, or sport. Parents and family members play a huge role in a child’s life and need to lead healthy lifestyles for their children to follow. We should limit our children’s time spent on passive leisure and encourage them to participate in more physically active activities. We should promote healthy eating and limit the number of times per day that our children eat unhealthy “junk” foods. Also, we need to be well involved in our children’s lives. It is understood that parents have busy schedules between work, meetings, and other things that may consume majority of their days, but there is always time for your children.

Our children are our priorities, whether we’re busy or not. I speak from experience of a very busy schedule. On top of going to University full-time and working a part-time job after classes, I also have a 4-month-old. Between all of the above plus homework and studying for midterms/exams, I do not get much free time for myself or quality time to spend with my boyfriend. However, I do not care if I have a final project due for school or if I have to be to work in half an hour, if my daughter is hungry, I take the time to feed her. If she needs her diaper changed, I change it. If she’s crying because she just wants to cuddle and be held, then I drop everything and spend time with her. Our children are our priority and they deserve to know that we care about them.


Bell, S.K. & Morgan, S.B. (2000). Children’s Attitudes and Behavioral Intentions Toward a
Peer Presented as Obese: Does a Medical Explanation for the Obesity Make a
Difference? Journal of Pediatric Psychology 25 (3), 137-145.

Birmingham, C.L., Muller, J.L., Palepu, A., Spinelli, J.J., and Anis, A.H. (1999). The cost
of obesity in Canada. Canadian Medical Association 160 (4), 483-488.

Tremblay, M.S. & Willms, J.D. (2003). Is the Canadian childhood obesity epidemic related
to physical inactivity? International Journal of Obesity 27, 1100-1105.

Wolf, A.M. & Colditz, G.A. (1998). Current estimates of the economic cost of obesity in the
United States. Obesity Research 6 (2), 97-106.

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7 Responses to Childhood Obesity and Participation in Sport, Recreation, and Leisure

  1. mmurchie15 says:

    Interesting approach on focusing more on how to include youth who suffer with obesity rather than how to prevent it. Since obesity does exist I guess it is important to make youth feel comfortable and engaged in sport and recreation even if they are over weight. I also liked how you mentioned teaching those children who are obese how to live a healthy lifestyle and spend more time on active leisure activities and less on passive leisure activities. This relates to “family support” from the 40 development assist as I believe at a young age it is up to the parents to make sure their child is receiving the daily physical activity that is required.
    The example you used with the overweight child in gym class, not wanting to participate reminded me of a situation involving myself when I was younger. In the 5th grade I tried out for the basketball team and made it, however I was close to not playing due to not feeling comfortable wearing the jerseys. I was a huge kid at that age. Not only was I much taller than most other children my age, I was also a little wider as well. The team jerseys were not meant to fit a child my size resulting in it being skin tight on me. I remember not wanting to play because I felt so uncomfortable wearing it, but I was lucky enough the coach ordered a larger jersey for me, and any other “bigger” kid that would play on the team years to come.

    Great Post,

    Michael Murchie.

  2. This was a very interesting post and opened my mind on how severe obesity is affecting this generation’s youth. Personally I feel as technology has played a major role with these numbers increasing over time. Video games and TV have become very popular throughout the world and have created a leisure activity that is mainly sedentary. This being said, it also has to do a lot with parenting as Mike mentioned above. It is up to the parents to determine whether their child is enduring a healthy amount of leisure or unhealthy. If a child is struggling health-wise due to an excessive amount of sedentary leisure it may be benficial to put a cap on it. Also promoting activities like biking and playing outside could also encourage youth to participate more in these activities. When I was younger I spent a good amount of time playing video games and still do today, but I was always encouraged to participate in other activities like working out and sports. There is definitely a happy medium with this and is hard to determine what is right and wrong due to many factors; for example, family income. These types of activities make it easier for parents to participate in other actives like housework while keeping an eye on their child.

    On another note, I find that there are fewer opportunities for youth to participate in recreation and sports activities. Even in school there have been cut backs of physical education classes, I remember in grade 7 we had it every day for the entire year, then in grade 8 they switched it to every day for only one semester. I would like to see this change in the future as this could be a one of the only times certain individuals get to participate in any physical activity. There are many factors that play a role in this topic and it was interesting to read about the facts that go along with it.

    Great Post and Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. kaylapainter12 says:

    Great approach to this topic Shayna. Technology is definitely one of the main reasons that the obesity rate has increased over the years. There are so many kids who prefer to sit and watch TV or play video games rather then going out and being active. Parenting plays a huge role as well, as parents should be more aware whether or not their child is receiving the daily physical activity that is required.

    To add to what Mitch said above about cut backs of physical education classes. Growing up I was always involved in sports, but mainly soccer. I played for FDSA and we had practice every night a week, and usually games on the weekends. Recently, I was told that the FDSA program has cut back their training schedules and now only offer practices up to 2-3 times a week. They are no longer required to play every night of the week because apparently it’s too much physical activity for the kids. I couldn’t believe this when I heard it because going to practice was always something I would look forward to, it was an opportunity to get out and run around as well as getting to see my friends. I can’t understand the reasoning behind cutting back the chance for kids to get physical activity, and the opportunity to learn new things. How are they going to be successful come game time, if they aren’t given the chance to practice?

    Great post,

    Kayla P.

  4. lucyparkin says:

    This was an eye opening approach to this topic Shayna, it was a great read! I couldn’t agree more with your points, and the other comments on technology. I think over the past decade, technology has had the biggest impact on obesity, as it has consumed the enjoyment of active leisure, which is now seen as more of a chore. I think this responsibility relies on the parents, purely because they provide the technology and the hours the child is allowed to be on it. If parents could monitor both active and passive leisure adequately, it could make a difference in the child’s lifestyle and how sedentary it would be.

    Again, in agreement to Mitch’s comment on the cut back of physical education, it really does have a significant impact on opportunities for sports and recreation. With sports becoming so expensive from such a young age at a competitive level, not all youth have the ability to participate depending on their families economic status. With this being said, fewer hours available at school could completely diminish a child’s opportunity to participate in any sports or recreation at all. Growing up, I played multiple different sports, and in all sports I was enrolled in, there was the opportunity to either practice twice a week or everyday depending on the level. As Kayla mentioned, now it seems that practice time is offered less despite it being at the highest level in some cases. Sports can bring so many positive characteristics to youths such as, commitment, physical activity, social skills and discipline etc, therefore cutting back mandatory hours could negatively impact youths that only have the option in a school or recreational environment. With obesity rates only going up, I would like to see changes in all these different areas to try and help eliminate as many youth obesity cases as possible.

    Lucy P.

  5. thomasmike17 says:

    I enjoyed reading on how you were able to get a child to participate in activities. It was nice that the other children were mindful enough to encourage and support the child during the activity. I believe this one event will help him want to be included next time and consequently, build self-confidence for the future. You have to give credit to the class and their behaviour surrounding the obese child, which furthermore is from good teachers caring about their student’s development and educating their pupils on the importance of inclusion.
    Many people are not educated on eating healthy, weather it is how to prepare meals or what the right foods to eat are. A healthy diet can make up some of the loss of physical activity children experience now with technological changes in our society. I believe incorporating health classes into schools where kids are at a young age helps them be aware of the healthy and unhealthy foods, and positive or negative affects it can have on them. Realizing that many children do not have a say in what they eat for meals, education for their parents could be provided through take home sheets or parent meetings. This just makes them aware of how beneficial healthy eating can be for their child.

  6. danielleunb says:

    This is a great post Shayna, I really enjoyed reading it. That sounds like a great group of children you worked with, it must have been a great experience! Also, it’s great that you are getting educated about these things in this class, hopefully it will help you to enlighten your parenting skills and help to positively influence your daughter’s youth development. As far as the rest of the comments from everyone, I agree with all of you. This concept of childhood obesity is becoming severely drastic and is on the rise everywhere, to all of us who are becoming recreational professionals it will be our job to make a difference in these children’s lives. We will be the ones who need to step in and turn all of these great ideas into reality, like educating parents and children about healthy eating and preparing meals, and developing affordable programs for youth to be a part of. It is going to be us one day that makes the difference in the children that are a part of this childhood obesity epidemic to help them become active and influence their youth development positively.

  7. chealy7 says:

    Great post and very intriguing topic! Definitely agree with your point that the majority of obese children come from poor parenting. Parents are letting kids eat whatever they want and whenever. Parents are busy and seem lazy, as they don’t take time to do some meal planning instead of the drive-thru at McDonalds. In addition to Mike’s comment, I find that many people are not educated on ways to eat healthy. I think parents should go to sessions or seminars on healthy eating and maybe getting tips on how to feed your kids. I know eating healthy can sometimes cost, but maybe they can get tips on cheap and easy healthy dishes.
    Also the fact that technology is consuming kids lives these days. I feel that parents are pushovers and easy with there kids lately. The parents are just buying them whatever they want to keep them happy and engaged in doing something. But, buying them an ipad to sit on the couch for three straight hours is not the best way of being engaged. This is sedentary leisure, which isn’t helping with their physical health. Parents should be encouraging kids to get outside to take them to a sport to be active. Supplying youth with devices at such a young age gets them addicted and they’re literally stuck to their screens and want to do nothing else. I think that parents should monitor their device use. Parents play a huge role in decision making for kids, they should be aware of how much daily activity they are getting versus technology and device use.

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