Health

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Girth of a nation–not just puppy fat

The problem of obesity among our children is real and it's getting worse. Nicky Larkin investigates

WHEN I started in secondary school, the internet was an infant. None of us knew what an email was. But most of us were thin.

Four years later, my younger sister started secondary school. By then we were texting and emailing and beginning to get sucked into what writer and comedian Charlie Brooker calls the 'Black Mirror' syndrome.

By this he means the amount of time we all now spend staring at various electronic screens. We find ourselves with iPhones, laptops and all manner of interactive consoles. We don't even read books anymore – we have Kindles, as if turning those heavy paper pages is too much physical exertion in this digital age.

And while there is a whole world of undoubtedly positive things emerging from 'Black Mirror' syndrome and the rapid advances in interactive technology in general, there are also some starkly negative effects.

Most shocking of all is the shape of our Irish children.

I am a witness. I worked as a lifeguard in a midlands swimming pool for seven years. Every summer when I returned to the deck, the children were fatter than the previous year. Towards the end of my time – around 2006 – it was commonplace to see morbidly obese children so embarrassed by their bodies that they'd wear tee-shirts while in for a swim, to hide their shame from their peers.

So who is responsible for these growing girth issues? Is it the parents – petrified of predators – keeping their children inside all day stuck to Playstations, instead of out on the streets breaking windows with footballs?

Or is it the contemporary education system; allowing children to avoid anything that remotely involves physical exercise?

Hurling is no longer compulsory in my old primary school. You can now opt out. As a result, only a handful of hopefuls go outside chasing that ball these days. The rest stay inside, attached to the radiators, counting down the hours until they can get back to their Playstations.

And the result?

There are 300,000 overweight children in Ireland. Scarier still, one-in-five Irish children is clinically obese.

And unfortunately, fat children quite often grow up to be fat adults, weighed down not only by their guts – but by the heavy stigma forever attached to possessing such a shape. 39 per cent of Irish adults are overweight, and 18 per cent are obese. Some can manage to shed the extra weight, but this too can have its issues if not undertaken properly.

Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks recently revealed he is suffering from type 2 diabetes. The iconic actor reckons his condition is linked to the rapid weight gains and losses required in his past film roles, such as the epic Cast Away, where he shed four stone in a matter of months.

To blame those children swimming in tee-shirts would be irresponsible. This period of chocolate-gobbling child-heft coincided with the warped Irish parental theory that a heavy child was a healthy child.

But to make matters even more complicated, these kids swimming in tee-shirts are bombarded with images of heroin-chic thin models like Kate Moss, six-packed footballers like David Beckham, and more recently the bizarre and unescapable antics of the wafer-thin Myley Cyrus.

This exposure to an imposed physical aspiration can lead many of those swimming in tee-shirts towards all the obvious devastating psychological problems – right back to the very simple things like summoning the courage to go to that swimming pool in the first place.

So what can we do? Perhaps we could return to the days of the Presentation Brothers. We could force our kids to chase a little white ball around a field every day in the rain, and shout at them while they do it.

We did it for eight long years, and not one of us was fat.

Or maybe the battle is already over, and the 'Black Mirror' has changed our children's shape forever.

www.nickylarkin.com

Sunday Independent

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