How to get the run on childhood obesity

Sunday afternoon, lying on the couch in that lovely place – the borderland of sleep.  A world cup rugby match is on television in the background, I can hear the commentary but I’m not really listening. Aristotle spoke of this state – hypnagogia, referring to it as the “affections we experience when sinking into slumber”. I deserve this, in fact I need it.  I’ve had a busy morning and this is my time. The dishes can wait and the floor isn’t that dirty. Then I hear the front door open and realise I’m in serious trouble. It’s been two hours; they’re back from coffee….. And I haven’t emptied the dishwasher, hoovered or hung out the washing. Michelle arrives in first; she catches me but says nothing, not a word. Molly, second in command is in next, hot on her mother’s heels. She says nothing either but she knows. Michelle goes straight to the utility room to check, and Molly to the dishwasher. They both meet in the kitchen to confirm their suspicions. I’m not awake yet but I’m trying watch the game out of the corner of my eye – Riche McCaw just got a yellow card! But neither my wife nor daughter care about the yellow card. “Did you do anything while we were out” was the first shot from Michelle and then our 4 year old kicks in with the second volley “Do you expect me and mammy to do all the cleaning?” delivered with the same tone, body language and distain as her mother.


Children are hardwired to learn by imitation (Jones, 2009), but luckily “assertiveness” isn’t the only mannerism of Michelle’s that Molly has picked up. She is active, always on the go, willing to run and play. People may assume that Molly is naturally energetic and requires little encouragement.  But in fact new British research suggests that parents activity levels may have a direct influence on how active – or not – their children are (Hesketh et al., 2014). The study emphasized that the example set by mothers in particular determined how active or sedentary their children are. The National Guidelines on Physical Activity for Ireland suggest all children (2-18 years) should be active at a moderate to vigorous level for at least 60 minutes every day. The Health Behaviours in School Children (HBSC, 2006) survey exposed that more than half of primary school children did not achieve the recommended level of physical activity. By 15 years of age, almost nine out of 10 girls and seven out of 10 boys don’t achieve the suggested level. Obesity is one of the foremost public health concerns in Ireland (Department of Health and Children, 2005). The less active children are, the greater the risk of them being overweight. Children of active parents are less likely to be overweight and obese (Erkelenz et al., 2014). The benefit of active parents in promoting the physical activity of children was recognised as early as the 1990s. When both parents are active, the children were almost 6 times as likely to be active when compared to the children of two inactive parents. Possible mechanisms suggested for this relationship include the parents’ serving as role models, sharing of activities by family members, enrichment and support by active parents of their child’s participation in physical activity, and genetically inherited factors that lead to greater levels of physical activity (Moore et al., 1991).

daughter immitationSo in an effort to act as good models myself and Michelle try and include Molly and Paddy in as much of our active pursuits as possible. They’ve come to rugby matches, races and Molly gets involved in practicing yoga and pilates in the sitting room. She helps with all the housework, indoors and in the garden and walks the dog. And even at that we struggle to meet the recommended level of daily exercise. Do I encourage my kids to be active – unashameably yes. Would I like them to play team sports – of course. Would I like them to be interested in running – absolutely. But why running? Surprisingly it’s not only because of the undeniable health benefits of running. Unlike other sports my experience of running has shown me that it rewards practice rather than innate ability. I am not a gifted runner by any means, but I know that if I train hard I can and will improve my running times.  The longer the distance of a running event, the more capacity you have to influence and improve your results through training (Joyner & Coyle, 2008).  So running proves we have a remarkable ability to improve through hard work and this is an attitude that I would like to foster and encourage in my children.


Forty years ago, an American psychologist, Walter Mischel conducted a simple but now famous experiment. He left four-year-olds alone in a room with a marshmallow on the table. They were told that they could eat the marshmallow at once, or wait until he came back and get two marshmallows. Some eat the marshmallow immediately. Others try all kinds of strategies to leave the treat alone. The ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life, predicting higher exam scores, better social and cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle and a greater sense of self-worth (Mischel et al., 1972). More recent research suggests that children may be able to learn to control their need for instant gratification, small achievable challenges allows them to believe they will be rewarded if they wait (Romer et al., 2010). Now anyone that has trained for a run, whether that is their first 5 km or their 100th marathon knows that running a race is a test in the ability to persist and postpone the short-term satisfaction of stopping, in favour of achieving a goal. In today’s fast paced world instant gratification for children is the norm. So if running teaches my children the value of patience and hard work I would be delighted. Like most people, running has taught me to question and push the edge of possibility. And this to me may be the most significant message to them. My hope is running, or whatever sport they choose will give them the ability to question anything labelled impossible.




Erkelenz N, Kobel S, Kettner S, Drenowatz C & Steinacker JM. (2014). Parental Activity as Influence on Children`s BMI Percentiles and Physical Activity. J Sports Sci Med 13, 645-650.


Hesketh KR, Goodfellow L, Ekelund U, McMinn AM, Godfrey KM, Inskip HM, Cooper C, Harvey NC & van Sluijs EM. (2014). Activity levels in mothers and their preschool children. Pediatrics 133, e973-980.


Jones SS. (2009). The development of imitation in infancy. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364, 2325-2335.


Joyner MJ & Coyle EF. (2008). Endurance exercise performance: the physiology of champions. J Physiol 586, 35-44.


Mischel W, Ebbesen EB & Zeiss AR. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. J Pers Soc Psychol 21, 204-218.


Moore LL, Lombardi DA, White MJ, Campbell JL, Oliveria SA & Ellison RC. (1991). Influence of parents’ physical activity levels on activity levels of young children. J Pediatr 118, 215-219.


Romer D, Duckworth AL, Sznitman S & Park S. (2010). Can adolescents learn self-control? Delay of gratification in the development of control over risk taking. Prev Sci 11, 319-330.


One thought on “How to get the run on childhood obesity

  1. hi barry cant knock any thing you say . when i was young i was big fat what ever you want to say at ten i was ten stone at 12 i was 12 stone till i hit 25 stone not easy to type that 25 stone .form a young age i loved hurling went to t local club trained with the lads but when it came to match i never got picked not even put in goals i eat more got fatter moved less its taken me to the age of 42 to get to the right frame of mind and by meeting the right people like wayne to help me move and no push till its sore the next day but its a good pain . my son will be 10 in the morning and made his comaioan in may of 2014 and the gear he wore that day fit him better now then they did back then a bit short be more room. thats only kick in the ass i need now to see him trim down .some eat less move more im now down to just over 19 stone from that move more eat less

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