The increasing cases of obesity are a major concern to most Kenyans, due to the condition’s adverse impact on people’s health.
According to the latest government statistics from the Kenya Stepwise Survey for Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) risk factors, 27 percent of Kenyans are either overweight or obese. But the percentage is slightly higher in women (38 percent) than men (17 percent).
Obesity increases people’s risk of suffering from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune disorders like lupus or multiple sclerosis.
Healthy diets and regular physical exercises can go a long way in preventing the condition. But rather than waiting until adulthood to adopt healthy lifestyles, new research shows that parents can play a significant role in averting the obesity crisis during the infancy stages of their children’s life.
The novel study — conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — found that inactive babies have an increased risk of developing obesity in later life.
The research, which has been published in the current Obesity Journal, notes that less physical activity for infants below a year old may lead to fat accumulation. This could, in turn, predispose kids to obesity, as they grow older.
During the study, researchers tracked the physical activity levels of 506 infants from the United States’ North Carolina area (at ages three, six, nine and 12) using small ankle-worn accelerometers between 2013 and 2016. More than two-thirds of the infants in the study were black.
For each tracking period after age three, average physical activity increased by about four percent, as infants became more mobile and active over the course of their first year.
Results of the study showed that the more children remained active, the less fat accumulated in their lower torso around the abdominal area.
The research specifically found that even a slight increase in recorded activity was associated with a small but significant decrease in central adiposity.
The latter is a skinfold-thickness-based measurement that determines to abdominal fat levels in individuals. It offers a relatively good measure of obesity-related fat accumulation in people.
Based on the findings, the researchers note that it is important for parents to prevent extended periods of inactivity among infants to enhance their current and future well-being.
“This is the first study to demonstrate an association over time between higher levels of objectively measured physical activity and lower torso fat accumulation in infancy,” stated Dr Sara Benjamin-Neelon, the lead author of the study and professor of public health promotion at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“The earlier you can get infants crawling and walking as well as providing them with opportunities to move freely throughout the day, the more you can help protect them against later obesity.”
Dr Sarah noted that even in infancy, it is important for children to move freely. “These days, infants are spending more and more sedentary time in car seats, high chairs or strollers. And perhaps we haven’t thought enough about the developmental ramifications of these types of restrictive devices.”
According to her, letting infants move freely on a floor or in a crib is one solution to the inactivity challenge.
Nevertheless, she emphasises that it is also important for parents to create situations that nudge infants to develop more advanced motor skills.
These may include helping children to grasp an adult’s hands or other support to stand up, as well as the ‘tummy time’ that promotes the development of neck and other upper body muscles.
Indeed, health experts have observed that nowadays, infants appear to be developing less upper body strength than in the past as a result of less time spent on their tummies.
Obese children also face psychological and social issues that include low self-esteem, discrimination, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. These are problems that can follow them into their adult years.
Besides, studies have shown that weight stigma can increase the risk of unhealthy eating habits and lower the level of physical activity, hence compounding the problem.
Indeed, children with obesity who are teased about their weight are more likely to binge on food and engage in other unhealthy behaviours.
They also become prone to bullying, stigma and body shaming due to their weight.
This increases feelings of worthlessness that prevent them from becoming productive in society or fully enjoying their life.