Opinion: Sports are the answer
One of the most popular "hot-button" issues on the national health scene is childhood obesity. The percentage of overweight kids in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years and a number of "Band-Aid" solutions have been proposed to try and stem this tide and prevent burgeoning health problems like diabetes. Most of these solutions have centered around what kids are eating. Schools have been pulling soda from the menu and watchdog groups have been pressuring fast food companies to start marketing some healthy options to kids.
That's all well and good, but, as a society, we're not going to get our kids in shape until we address another disturbing statistic: according to the Department of Health and Human Services, 25 percent of American kids watch four or more hours of television every day. That doesn't even include the hours spent in front of video games, which can be downright addicting.
A lot of kids are just too sedentary to stay in shape these days and the best answer for that is to encourage them to get into sports. When the kids are young, it certainly doesn't have to be organized sports, in fact, putting too much pressure on kids early can leave them burned out and hating sports. When I was a kid I played in two leagues every summer, one for soccer and one for baseball. But they were strictly recreational leagues and rarely met beyond the one day a week when we had games.
For me, that was about the right amount of league play in the summer, and I spent a lot of my other free time in less structured but just as physical play. My friends and I were always arranging games of pick-up basketball, or going out to the baseball fields with a bucket of balls for a home run derby (when we were younger we'd swing from the pitcher's mound so we could actually reach the fences). By the time we got to high school we had also taken up tennis and golf, since a lot of us had jobs then and we only needed to find one or two others who were free for those sports.
That's the kind of thing parents need to encourage today to curb childhood obesity. Get kids a decent bat and 15 to 20 balls and they'll do the rest. There's nothing more thrilling than pretending you're the top local slugger (Reggie Sanders, I guess), as your friend throws soft toss and you swing as hard as you can.
If you've got a good-sized driveway, a basketball hoop is a great investment. You can make it more fun by measuring out the official free throw and three-point lines and painting them on the drive. It doesn't exactly look suave or classy, but it does make for the most popular court in the neighborhood.
These solutions mostly focus on getting kids outside and that's really the key. Any sport that does that will help out with obesity. Less traditional sports like hunting, skateboarding or swimming are just as good. Some parents in urban areas are understandably reluctant to send their kids out to play because they don't live on the safest streets. But most cities have community centers now with open gyms and pools and reduced rates for low-income kids.
As a society we need to push for more of these, more basketball courts, swimming pools, even cool new ideas like indoor skate parks or archery ranges. It will be expensive, but in the long run it will save our society a bundle of money in health care if it helps keep kids in shape.