Healthy Kids from Day One Act Introduced to Fight the Inactive, Indoor American Childhood

Healthy Kids from Day One sponsor Sen. Mark Udall greets a friend on National Get Outdoors Day Denver, in Denver's City Park (flickr | SenatorMarkUdall)
Last week, Michelle Obama joined thousands of students in Iowa and Florida to celebrate the two-year anniversary of Let’s Move!, the First Lady’s campaign to fight childhood obesity. Over its short history, Let’s Move! has indeed made some remarkable milestones, from putting healthier options on school lunch menus, to getting retail giants like Wal-Mart to offer more nutritional transparency. For the littlest tykes, there’s Let’s Move Child Care, a voluntary effort to work with child care providers to encourage healthy eating, physical activity, and screen time reduction.

But, with more than 1 in 5 preschoolers today being obese or overweight (and 1 in 3 low-income children classified as obese before their fifth birthday), Mrs. Obama cannot singlehandedly win the fight against this epidemic. According to the CDC, approximately 13 million U.S. children and adolescents are obese, a rate that has tripled since 1980.

Fortunately, there is action being taken on Capitol Hill to address this crisis, including the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act. And now for our youngest kids, there is Senator Mark Udall’s (CO) proposed Healthy Kids from Day One Act. Reflecting the pervasive nature of factors contributing to obesity – namely the eating and exercise habits that begin in preschool years – the legislation would create a three-year pilot program in five states supporting child care collaboratives for healthy eating, physical activity and reducing screen time.

Under the bill, the Department of Health and Human Services would award competitive grants to help reduce and prevent childhood obesity and to encourage parental engagement in childcare settings. The bill recognizes the importance of including outdoor play to enhance children’s mental and physical development.  One finding in the bill highlights the health benefits of outdoor time:

Age-appropriate physical activity in the outdoors, in particular, can produce immense physical, mental and emotional health benefits, including addressing childhood obesity, decreasing symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, improving motor skills, stimulating brain development, increasing creativity and quality sleep, and reducing the risk of developing myopia.

The statistics on our youngest kids’ health are daunting to say the least. The amount of time children spend outdoors is dwindling rapidly, and research has shown that kids are sedentary for about 70-83% of the time they spend in child care. Factor in more screen time than ever, and it becomes clear that anything less than a multi-systems, as-early-as-possible approach will be insufficient. A graphic from the New York Times’ coverage of a Common Sense Media report shows that 44% of 2-4 year olds already have TVs in their bedrooms. And since it’s American Heart Health Month, let’s not forget that all this inactivity is a major culprit in developing heart disease, and that the signs of it are appearing early and often in young kids.

NWF’s Be Out There campaign to connect kids and families to nature has many suggestions for engaging young children in outdoor play, which has been shown to stimulate healthy brain development, along with a slew of additional benefits. Also, to help get nature back into playtime, the Natural Play and Learning Areas Guidelines Project works with managers of schools, parks, childcare centers, and public lands to implement best practices and deal with obstacles in order to build better outdoor play spaces.