Physical Literacy and Childhood Obesity, Part 1

Kids Run

A typical headline reads, “Despite Obesity Concerns, Gym Classes Are Cut.” And there are plenty more like it. Dr. Pretlow would like schools to require Physical Education classes, and this is a perfectly logical position, even if exercise is not ranked as the top solution for the childhood obesity epidemic. There is disagreement over this point. Exercise may not offer a direct, blatantly observable, and truly attributable benefit when directly measured against childhood obesity.

But the world is a complicated place. Once the exercise question is regarded through the psychological food dependence-addiction lens, a new world of possibility opens up. Dr. Pretlow proposes that most obesity is traceable to food addiction, which is as real as any other kind of addiction. If this is the case, the benefits of exercise are also apparent from this point of view. The benefits of physical activity include ways to prevent addiction from ever developing, reduce the agony of withdrawal, more easily achieve recovery, avoid slipping, and so on. Like many other things, it depends on variables.

Taking a stroll around the block after dinner will not make a lot of difference to a full-blown 450-pound pizza addict, although it wouldn’t hurt. On the other hand, for a young child to start developing that habit could be a major step on the path to lifelong health. (A parent can help the process along by offering the choice: Walk around the block or wash the dishes. Collapsing in front of some kind of screen is not an option.)

Even later, just a small amount of physical activity could make a big difference. For a college kid coping with the traditional “freshman 15” weight gain, who never had a problem before, regular exercise could be enough of an answer to get over that hump. Physical activity cultivates many of the very traits and qualities a child needs to cope with life successfully, to the point where becoming addicted to hyperpalatable foods or any other substance is unlikely.

As Colin Higgs, Ph.D., whose academic home is Memorial University of Newfoundland, writes:

An early active start enhances development of brain function, coordination, social skills, gross motor skills, emotions, leadership, and imagination. It also helps children build confidence, develop posture and balance, build strong bones and muscles, promote healthy weight, reduce stress, improve sleep, learn to move skillfully, and learn to enjoy being active.

What a great recipe for a kid who probably does not have an addiction in his or her future! Higgs is listed at the top of the list of experts responsible for a Canadian government-sponsored publication titled Developing Physical Literacy (a downloadable PDF file) so it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of his thinking went into it.

Childhood obesity is a huge concern in Canada, and the document does acknowledge this right up front. But the genius of Developing Physical Literacy is that it promotes exercise not only as the key to an active healthy life for the individual, but as the key to sporting excellence. Fitness is positioned as a matter of honor and potential glory for the nation, which is proud of having sent so many great athletes to the world stage, and looks forward to producing even more. It’s an appeal to national pride, as much as anything else, and it appears to be a very effective example of the psychology of persuasion used for a good purpose (which is so often not the case).

Fundamental movement skills, and later, fundamental sports skills, need to be learned in childhood. Just like learning languages, there is a “window of opportunity” for the growing human to assimilate different kinds of physical skills, which collectively are known as physical literacy. One of the main principles is that all children, including those who have disabilities, can and should master fundamental movement skills, and in the earliest years, rhythmic movement is an excellent activity.

Every child should be able to catch, jump, throw, swim, and run. Every child needs to develop agility, balance, coordination, speed and judgment of speed, strength, endurance, and flexibility. These things are needed in order to play sports, and the playing of sports is needed in order to develop these qualities. The practice feeds into the ability, and the ability feeds into the practice. For kids, they recommend gymnastics, track and field, swimming, and cycling.

Developing Physical Literacy includes extensive checklists for concerned and activist parents, who want to know exactly what they should demand from schools and sports programs. Coming up, Childhood Obesity News will look at the recommendations for appropriate exercise in different age groups, and why and how it can help ameliorate the childhood obesity epidemic.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Developing Physical Literacy: A Guide For Parents Of Children Ages 0 to 12” (PDF),
Image by terren in Virginia, used under its Creative Commons license.


  1. I enjoyed reading this article and the statements made by Dr. Pretlow and Dr. Higgs are right on target. As a public health professional and consultant, I have worked with many different families around health education, behavior changes, and access to care. I can say that changing people’s behaviors not only to food but to physical activity is a challenge. We as humans are conditioned to behave and act certain ways, since babies, so when it comes to teaching children and parents to have a balanced healthy life, this can required many different approaches and strategies. I have learned that some times direct dissemination of information to parents may not be the best tactic. One of the reasons is culture, some families perceive food as a cultural element rooted in the family’s make up. Sometimes is not about changing the behavior, if not about modifying it and introducing changes step by step.



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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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