Fixing the childhood obesity epidemic | Matt Young | TEDxStanleyPark

Childhood obesity is becoming the #1 preventable disease amongst children in the world. Despite this, the needle continues to move in the wrong direction. Why? And how can we fix it?

Matt Young is a lifelong health and fitness proponent and founder of Innovative Fitness. He is an advocate of physical literacy in the home, at school and throughout society. Email:

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at

TEDx Transcript: Fixing the childhood obesity epidemic.

This picture makes me sad. Sad because I see a broken system that few understand the urgency in fixing. Sad because this is the first generation expected to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Sad because obese children are highly likely to suffer mental & physical challenges that will remain with them for the rest of their lives; Low self esteem. Low self confidence. Anxiety. Diabetes. Cancers.

The World Health Organization reports there are 42M obese kids under the age of 5. 42 million. Preventable & unacceptable.

Childhood obesity doesn’t just hurt those children, it hurts everyone around them too. We must fix the childhood obesity epidemic and physical literacy is the gateway.

I was not obese as a child. I was a by-product of dysfunction which led me to discover the transformative power of what we now define as; physical literacy. I got my degree in human movement & have dedicated over two decades to “empowering personal reinvention through physical challenge, adversity & victory”. Professionally, I have helped tens of thousands of people prioritize healthy habits & physical activity into their lives.

Physical literacy is understanding the requirements to lead a physically healthy & physically active life. It has fallen by the wayside and in doing so, gives way to the childhood obesity epidemic. To be clear, we can fix the childhood obesity epidemic by creating physically literate populations.

A leading researcher provided five reasons for the decline of physical literacy.

The first reason given for the decline of physical literacy is screen time. Research shows kids will spend an average of 7.4hrs / day in front of a screen. That is time that would otherwise be spent moving, exploring, creating and discovering. Humans are social creatures. Humans were designed to move. We have prioritized entertainment over being healthy and that needs to change.

The second reason for the decline of physical literacy is early sport specialization. We used to have seasons. Fall, winter, spring and summer and with those seasons, we were able to enjoy different sports. And it’s not just about the sports, it’s about the opportunities to gather, to socialize and to build new relationships. Now, we have sport seasons that last 10-12 months a year. It’s crazy. Hockey parents are crazy. And what is the research showing? Increased incidence of injuries from overuse and a higher report of drop out at early age. We’ve sucked the enjoyment from kids sports because we’ve made it like a job in the quest to become that elite athlete.

The third reason fro the decline is generalist physical education teachers. We have given permission for people who are not adequately trained in physical education. to teach our kids healthy habits and how to move. I recall the old days when we had the teacher with their whistle & clipboard. We looked up to them, maybe even feared them a little. They told us to job and we just jumped. That’s no longer the same and that would not be acceptable in any other subject. Could you imagine someone trying to teach science or math without knowledge in the subject matter? Of course not. But it’s been made acceptable in physical education and gives rise to the fourth reason for the decline which is.

Cutting physical education from curriculums all together. I can totally understand why. Phys ed has become a socialization experiment. It’s viewed as a glorified spare. But think about this, in a time where creativity and innovation are at the forefront of industry, we’re cutting back on subjects like art and physical education and standardizing our learning environment. We’re creating sheople. It makes no sense.

The final reason for the decline of physical literacy is fear. The fear that around every corner is a white van with a perpetrator waiting to snatch our child. The fear that our environment will bring harm or violence to our children. So we keep them imprisoned. Statistically, the incidence of preventative disease to physical harm is upwards of 98-99% -1%. We need to empower our children how to survive in their environments rather than fearing them.

Physical literacy starts at home and I need look no further than myself for examples of what we can do to promote healthy habits & activity.

We have two sons and given the chance, they would eat cereal & juice seven out of seven days a week. Why? Because it’s quick, it’s cheap and it’s easy. But my job isn’t to service wants, it’s to service needs so we shared the reality that the daily recommendation for sugar is 6 teaspoons per day. This is what that looks like over a week. Now six teaspoons includes all foods for that day and to give context, one can of cola contains nine teaspoons in one serving. So one pop, and you’ve exceeded the daily suggested recommendation of sugar.

Now the actual average sugar intake is been reported to be twenty two teaspoons of sugar per day and this is what that looks like. It’s a significant difference. So when we see this we can see the recommended and the actual averages. I was putting this (actual avg) into my children each day and sending them off to school. I was sending them off to school to fail. Worse, we know sugar has been reported to stimulate the same part of the brain as cocaine, so I was really sending my kids to school… high.

The second example of physical literacy in the home came one afternoon in the summer. Our boy was three years old, and he was buckled into his twenty point harness walking in five cm’s of water when he slipped and fell. I remember the tears streaming down his cute little face as he looked at the crowd on the beach and before anyone could sprint to his rescue I put my arms up and yelled two words to him. STAND UP. STAND UP. He looked at me, tears streaming down his face, put his arms out and pushed himself back to his feet where he would continue his search for his next shiny rock. It’s a small example, but a good one. If we want to help our kids succeed in our absence, we need to let them fail in our presents. The number one new condition is twenty some things wandering the hospital hallways suffering from anxiety.

The second place physical literacy must be measured is in school. We must create a tangible physical literacy baselines in schools just like we do with reading, writing and arithmetic.

We went to our school and asked; what is your physical literacy strategy? I encourage you to do this at your schools. Turns out they didn’t have one (and a high % do not). We’ve already spoken about physical education cuts, so in the spirit of ideas to action we created two tools.

The first tool we created was a fundamental movement skills asses, show, teach and activate me tool. Fundamental movement skills are skills required for success in sport and life. This isn’t just about sport. These are essential to life skills. It was our intention to have physical education measured in the same manner as the three R’s. Start by taking a baseline measurement of movement competency, apply the curriculum and lesson plans, re-evaluate the progress just like a midterm and use that evaluation as a part of the grade. No more would Jenny get an A because she works well with others. No more would “everyone get a three because we don’t want to hurt kids self esteem” That was a direct quote from a principal to which I asked, so we can call our kids stupid, but we can’t call them unhealthy? That makes no sense.

The second tool we created was a health habits tracker. We looked at essential habits of physical activity, nutrition, screen time, hydration, sleep and mental health and implemented it into a healthy school challenge. It stood to reason if we wanted to change behaviors, we must be prepared to hold people accountable to that behavior change. The results? Amazing. We had schools star calling and then countries start calling to get involved.

Our kids will spend a third of their days and a quarter of their lives in schools. Physical literacy must become a priority there.

The final environment physical literacy must become prevalent is in our society. Societies responsibility in moving the needle away from the crisis end of the spectrum will need to include the nasty R word; Regulation. Establishing a baseline of what’s acceptable in terms of marketing & promoting quality foods to children & families is paramount for our success.

For those who think it will never happen. Those who believe the food companies are too big to adjust. Those who believe big business is in the pocket of governments; remember we’ve been down this road before and managed to save lives & resources over the course of time.

The blue box. In some western countries we decided our environment mattered and we had a responsibility to it. So, instead of destroying it with waste, we recycled. Saving our environment.

The buckle up program. Not only did we determine that wearing seat belts was a priority we go as far as fining people who don’t wear them. Legislation to save lives.

And perhaps the most familiar is the smoking cessation program. Again, we determined that smoking took lives and as such created legislation stating you can’t smoke in public places, can’t sell cigarettes to minors and there must be warning labels on cigarette packages

The tobacco companies got it… eventually. The food and beverage companies may require similar compliance incentives to re-think their strategies.

Much like physical literacy is being accepted in schools, there’s a renewed push for social education & awareness. Thee have been a number of great documentaries like The Men Who Make Us Fat, which outlines the impact of no regulation on the food industry. Fed Up, which chronicles the role of high fructose corn syrup on our daily diets. And BOUGHT, which explores the role of pharma, vaccinations and genetically modified organisms in our kids lives.

To move the needle on childhood obesity, we need to do more than do what we’ve always done and expect different results; talking, blaming, researching.

I call on you to develop, measure & promote physical literacy in your circles of influence. Your children. Your nieces & nephews. Your grandchildren. Your friends’ children. Your schools. Your communities.

And do these interventions not now, but right now.

Let’s. Get. Moving!



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