Future Reflections Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness
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by Seth Lamkin
The current trend in popular culture today is to lose weight fast, and to do it as effortlessly as possible. Fitness ads are targeting middle-aged adults, while politicians, TV personalities, scientists, parents, and even fast-food chains are turning their attention to the nation’s children. Mixed messages, yes, and it may feel like you’re sifting through a lot of garbage, but don’t throw it all away, because it’s often the thought that counts--a growing appreciation of fitness and personal health.
In today’s American culture, instant gratification is the norm, or rule, I should say. From high-speed Internet to one-stop-shopping to fast food: the invincible six-year-old’s Kryptonite. The current childhood obesity problem in America is a product of many things, one of which is the ease and availability of fast food. We all know how easy it is to drive up to your local fast-food establishment and order your family dinner in a paper bag, with an easy-to-tote cardboard box for the kid. According to research, they can’t help but love the stuff. Healthy eating early on “is constrained by children’s genetic predispositions, which include the unlearned preference for sweet tastes, salty tastes, and the rejection of sour and bitter tastes. Children are also predisposed to reject new foods…” 1 The key is to introduce healthy foods early and stick to them.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the percentages of obese kids under the age of nineteen have nearly tripled since 1980. And what do you get when you have obese kids? Eventually, you get the adult versions that become burdens on the health care system. Besides producing poor self-esteem and negative social interactions, obesity can be blamed for a variety of serious health concerns including hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes--which coincidentally can cause blindness--heart disease, stroke, respiratory problems, and some forms of cancer.
The current trends in entertainment aren’t helping matters. Video games are a prime culprit that addictively entertains children and, admittedly young men, while keeping them glued to the couch. While the PlayStation® may be improving children’s manual dexterity, it is certainly not providing them with the opportunities for exercise and exploration that little minds and bodies so desperately need. And while studies may disagree as to whether video games are a cause or a result of obesity, the link is undeniable.
As the attacks on video games and television increase in the anti-childhood obesity movement, it may be easy to overlook the other, more innocent contributors. A study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the time taken by a child’s attention to electronic media alone does not necessarily lead to decreasing athletic activity. Any form of non-active entertainment that may dominate a child’s day will be destructive--including reading. Kids today spend an average of five-and-a-half hours a day using some form of media--more time than they spend doing anything else besides sleep. 2 This is not to discourage you from encouraging your child to read, in fact, the NOPBC encourages Braille readers to be leaders in their community. The goal is a balance in activity to produce qualified, well-adjusted adults--renaissance men and women in their own way.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock--an enviable position at times--you may have noticed the enormous volume of get-thin-quick schemes. Most are obvious frauds, but the point is that an emerging American paradox is the obsession with fitness and appearance, with a propensity towards sloth and obesity. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating. News broadcasts warn you about the nation’s obesity epidemic, showing unflattering footage of sweatpant-clad, overweight Americans from the waist down. Then, their commercial break is littered with fast-food and sedentary entertainment ads, with the occasional Bowflex® piece. Fast-food restaurants now scramble to tell you how their quarter-pound grease bomb is better for you than the competitor’s.
But while the tension between the two sides is confusing at times, it is important to note that the fitness bandwagon is racing by, and there is no reason why you and your blind child should not be on it. According to American Sports Data Inc., over 39 million Americans belong to health clubs, and many more participate in regular fitness activity of some form. Masterfoods, the producer of M&M’s® and Snickers®, has announced that it will stop marketing to kids under twelve by the end of 2007. In 2000, the Department of Health and Human Services launched Healthy People 2010, a health promotion and disease prevention campaign to try to improve the nation’s health in the first decade of the new millennium. The attention may be due to the perceived drain on the health care system and the dollars associated with it, but in any case, even Uncle Sam is getting involved.
So the pressing need for physical education and proper nutrition is being recognized, and marketing schemes from both sides continue to fight for your fifteen minutes of attention. Now you’re wondering why you needed one more article to tell you this. Well, the answer is this: children who are blind consistently display a lower level of activity and exercise than their sighted counterparts.3 As parents of blind children, you know the hurdles to physical activity that go beyond what sighted children must face: poor self-confidence, lack of training, lack of opportunity, and a low level of expectations from those around them.
But blind people are excelling at all levels of physical fitness. The United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) is a community-based organization of the United States Olympic Committee, and reaches blind athletes across the country. USABA athletes have served as U.S. Olympic Team members and won medals against sighted competitors. In fact, a blind runner named Marla Runyan qualified for the 2000 Olympic Team in the 1,500 meter race, competing all the way to the finals. She also finished as the top American in the Boston and New York Marathons. As recently as 2006, she finished first at the Twin Cities U.S. Marathon Championships.
There’s a whole host of options waiting for you. Your child doesn’t have to be a superstar or an Olympian. In fact, he/she doesn’t even need to play organized sports--although if he/she doesn’t, it shouldn’t be because of blindness (as you will see throughout this issue). With the modern American parent living life by routines and schedules, many have placed similar restrictions on their children. But there is a growing movement towards a form of exercise focused on exploration and creativity: a period of time in which children are free to develop their own method of active play.
The importance of this “free play” is being recognized both at home and abroad. The Free Play Network, based out of the UK, works to counter the trend towards restrictive and overly organized play opportunities for children. Your children may not have the affinity towards traditional, organized sports, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exercise. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report on “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” They found that free play develops creativity and imagination, builds confidence, helps to practice decision-making skills, and generally creates a better understanding of the world around them.
Getting off the proverbial couch can sometimes be a scary notion when one lacks confidence. That is why encouraging it when children are young is so important. The recklessness of youth should be supervised, but it shouldn’t be overly restrained. And while media trends may change, and even send mixed messages, the current push towards exercise and play should be seized and encouraged. So, take the concept and run with it--no really, run--and hop on that fitness bandwagon.
1. Birch, Leann L., Fisher, Jennifer O. “Development of Eating Behaviors Among Children and Adolescents.” Pediatrics, Mar 1998. 101:539-549.
2. “The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity.” Kaiser Family Foundation. Issue Brief 7030. 2004
3. Blessing, D. L., McCrimmon, D., Stovall, J., & Williford,
H. N. “The Effects of Regular Exercise Programs for Visually Impaired and Sighted
Schoolchildren.” Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. Volume
87. 1993. (50-52)
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