Obesity in Children With Disabilities: Reversing the Global Trends

What Is Obesity?

Childhood obesity is a growing problem. Over recent decades, the incidence of children who are overweight or obese has increased significantly. This can be attributed to a range of factors:

  • increased prevalence of fast foods and packaged foods
  • decreased consumption of fresh foods
  • increased consumption of highly energy dense foods and drinks, along with products such as high fructose corn syrup in many packaged foods and drinks (Learn more about a low fructose diet here)
  • increased use of screen time by children and adults
  • greater reliance on the car as a mode of transport
  • decreased public open spaces that are easily accessible

And the list goes on. Obviously the factors will vary depending on each individual and their personal situation, but the question really is ‘Can we stop this wave of obesity in children, and particularly can we (and should we) as teachers do anything to address the incidence of obesity in children with disabilities in our own educational system?

The Facts

As many as one in five young people in some countries are now identified as being overweight or obese. This rate links with increasing rates of Type Two diabetes, as well as increasing the risk for later cardiovascular problems, depression and joint problems and an inability to enjoy living life to the full.

The Strategies

The general strategies for combating obesity are quite simple; eat a balanced and nutritious diet and do some exercise often. But does this apply to a special needs population? Is it important for learners with special needs to maintain a healthy weight? Yes on both scores!

In fact for many people with a disability, it is perhaps even more important to maintain a healthy weight and take part in exercise. Just look at the advantages:

  1. The chance of joint problems linked with carrying a greater weight are reduced
  2. The ability to participate in social and recreation activities is increased
  3. The network of friends and contacts becomes wider through sport and recreation
  4. The chance of cardiovascular problems in later life is lessened
  5. The chance of developing diabetes is lessened
  6. Flexibility is increased
  7. Muscle strength and tone is maintained
  8. If using a mobility aid such as a wheelchair, it becomes much easier to push effectively, thus increasing access to all aspects of life’s activities

How to Do It

In a special education context, there are lots of simple activities to target obesity in children with disabilities and build health and fitness. These include making a healthy meal in the classroom or home economics program, doing a daily ‘huff and puff’ session with all students, involving families in the swimming program so they become confident in safely supporting their young person at the pool, finding out about recreation and respite programs in your area and promoting the notion of ‘respite through planned exercise’, writing a newsletter which shows students participating in regular exercise, or inviting volunteers or buddies to work with a young person to support them in accessing local exercise opportunities.

Make weight loss, health and nutrition a positive, enjoyable part of the everyday experience, and promote the notion that life is to be cherished, not filled with despair and anxiety about weight. Encourage a gradual approach, and one which allows for treats and snacks to be enjoyed as part of a wider balanced diet (a ‘sometimes food’).

What Not to Do

There are many TV shows currently which involve a punitive and fairly harsh approach to weight loss. It is my view that this is not appropriate for a school setting, and in the long term is not generally productive.

Avoid approaches which encourage rapid weight loss (unless guided by a medical practitioner) or involve the participants feeling they are failing, doing the wrong thing or must have a ‘lose it or else’ approach to weight loss. Try not to focus on weight as represented by numerical scores for success (how many pounds have been lost this week). Particularly with special needs learners, also avoid any program or activity which does not fit with what you know of the needs and medical background of the student.

Participating in regular exercise for skills, learning, enjoyment and health benefits can be part of the school’s domain. A weight loss program, and particularly one at the ‘boot camp’ or ‘lose weight or you fail’ end of the spectrum, most definitely does not belong in methods dealing with special education and obesity.

Obesity in Children With Disabilities: We Can Stop This

As special educators, we are the experts on communicating and educating children with disabilities in ways that are appropriate, meaningful and engaging. Within the health and physical education domain, there is ample scope for tackling the difficult issue of obesity in children with disabilities in a caring, sensitive and relevant way. We can stop this trend towards increasing weight in our young people, and it will be of significant benefit to the coming generations if we do.