WASHINGTON – Kids don't run outside and play like they used to, and parents say being a couch potato is a major culprit in the growing problem of childhood obesity.
Lack of exercise edged out easy access to junk food as the main concern of the 21 percent of parents who conceded in an AP-KOL poll that their children are overweight. KOL is the kids' service of America Online.
Parents' big frustration is how to change sedentary habits.
"What do kids like to do other than hang out with their friends?" asks Kim Nethery of Crestwood, Ky., who has tried fruitlessly to find a physical activity her 15-year-old daughter will do. Even a walk is difficult, because the family lives on a high-traffic country road risky for pedestrians.
Parents also fret over improving children's eating habits. More than half cited the cost of healthy food and television commercials and food packaging as at least a minor problem, according to the poll conducted by Ipsos for The Associated Press and KOL. Another issue: food served in school cafeterias.
Her son's middle school lets him order lunch a la carte, complained Margaret Gunderson of Loveland, Colo.
"They're ordering pizza, ice cream. They blow through their lunch money by Tuesday," she said.
The government counts 9 million children ages 6 to 16 who are overweight, at increased risk for diabetes and other health problems, not to mention being teased by peers or left out of fun activities. Overweight children usually grow into overweight adults.
In the survey, children whose parents earned less than $50,000 a year were a little more likely to be overweight than those from more affluent families.
Children are supposed to get at least an hour of vigorous activity a day. But research shows far too few get anywhere close.
More than half the parents surveyed said their children had expressed a desire to exercise more, and 30 percent said their child wanted to lose weight.
Jeff Chabot, an engineer from Rutland, Vt., said he encourages his children to participate in outdoor activities like snowmobiling and skiing.
Chabot said his older son is a little heavy. "Junk food is a big temptation," he said. "There's a temptation to park himself on the couch and eat after school."
Between heavy traffic that hinders bike-riding and easy access to video games, "children's forms of entertainment are much less active than the entertainment we had growing up," said teacher Dierde Karcher of Montclair, N.J.
Reducing time spent in front of television and computers has been proven to slow children's weight gain.
"We as parents need to do more," said Elena Penson, a sales clerk from Lufkin, Texas, whose family makes a point of going to a park twice a week to play catch. "But when we get home, we're tired, too. We've gotten lazy."
Inactive parents teach their children by example to be sedentary, warned American Heart Association president Dr. Robert H. Eckel, who researches obesity at the University of Colorado.
Getting active doesn't have to mean joining a ball team. "One of the strongest correlates of how overall active a child is, is how much time they spend outdoors," said Dr. Nancy Krebs, who co-chairs an American Academy of Pediatrics' obesity panel. "Nature takes over from there."
Parents who earned less than $25,000 a year were more likely than those with higher incomes to cite the cost of healthy food as a problem in improving their children's eating habits. Almost four in 10 parents in rural areas noted that problem, too, more than suburban parents.
Moms were nearly twice as likely as dads to cite as factors healthy food prices, TV commercials and junk-food packaging aimed at children, and unhealthy school food.
And 49 percent of parents said the lack of time for home-cooked meals was a problem. Restaurant meals tend to have more calories and fewer fruits and vegetables.
"By the time we get off from work, it's more convenient to stop at a restaurant than get a home-cooked meal," said nurse Susan Henderson of Yucaipa, Calif.
Almost a quarter of parents who thought their children were overweight blamed easy access to junk food.
"I try to keep my daughter on her recommended diet, make sure she gets an appropriate amount of vegetables and very little meat," said Darrell Scott of Oklahoma City. "But it's a battle."
The AP-KOL poll of 961 parents of children between ages 6-17 was conducted from Oct. 5-23 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.