Monthly Archives: August 2009

Help our overweight children

childhood-obesity-by-joe-huObesity has been rated as the No.1 health problem for American children, according to a 2009 poll conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Up to one out of every five children in the U.S. is overweight or obese, and this number is continuing to grow. Obesity places children at risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes later in life. The overweight children are also more prone to be depressed, anxious, and withdrawn, and report low self-esteem.

Children become overweight and obese for a variety of reasons. The most common causes are genetic factors, lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of these factors. For example, psychologists explain that a combination of environmental pressures (e.g., parental concerns about children’s safety), technological factors (e.g., labor-saving devices such as cars), and societal transitions from childhood to adulthood are likely to increase sedentary behaviors, which usually coexist with eating, resulting in weight gain in children (Hills et al., 2007).

Although factors associated with and possible causes of obesity are complex, a child’s total diet and activity level play an important role in determining a child’s weight. Today, many children spend a lot time being inactive. For example, the average child spends approximately 4 hours each day watching television. As computers and video games become increasingly popular, the number of hours of inactivity may increase. Reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity is a public health challenge, and schools and parents have the potential to play a powerful role in diminishing this serious health crisis.

square-eyeObesity Is Biggest Health Problem for Kids (WebMD News)

square-eyeCrothers, L.M., Kehle, T. J., Bray, M. A., & Theodore, L. A. (2009). Correlates and suspected causes of obesity in children.

square-eyeTheodore, L. A., Bray, M.A., & Kehle, T.J. (2009). Introduction to the special issue: Childhood obesity.

Ouch! Is this what asylum feels like?

Iraqi_boys_giving_peace_signUday Hattem al-Ghanimi represents a growing population of Iraqis who have sought political asylum and resettled in the United States after the Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003. However, as the New York Times reported on Thursday, like many accomplished immigrants from other countries, Uday and his family have not been met with the welcome and opportunity for which they had hoped or were led to expect. With the wounds of war still tender, Iraqis are struggling to support themselves and their families as they face alienation in the job market and ostracism from society.

A social psychological perspective of the Iraqi experience in the United States elucidates the hardships that Iraqis are facing. Williams (1997, 2007) emphasized the profound negative effects of ostracism on individuals. Five minutes of ostracism due to exclusion from a ball-tossing game resulted in decreased self-esteem and feelings of helplessness, among other negative outcomes. Such negative outcomes are exacerbated with long-term ostracism. Williams notes that the effects of ostracism are initially felt much like physical pain, possibly reflecting overlapping neural circuitry. It seems Iraqis may have traded potential pain due to warfare for certain pain due to ostracism.

square-eye The New York Times: Iraqi Immigrants Face Lonely Struggle in U.S.

square-eye Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism: The kiss of social death.

It’s all in the attitude

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Preventative care and aggressive follow-up treatment may not be the only things one needs to combat maladies like heart disease and cancer. Optimism could also be critical for recovery and general well-being. This week the BBC highlighted a study in which optimistic women had lower risks of suffering from heart disease and death over an eight year period (Tindle & Steinbaum, 2009).  While this study links optimism and longevity, positive outlook is also associated with better health (Kamen & Seligman, 1987), greater achievement (Seligman, Nolen-Hoeksema, Thornton, and Thornton, 1990), persistence in achieving high-priority goals (Geers, Wellman, & Lassiter, 2009), lower levels of stress (Crosno, Rinaldo, Black, & Kelley (2009), and better emotional health (Matthews & Cook, 2008). What is it about optimism that provides such a wide variety of positive health and psychological outcomes?  It could be that optimists are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and take better care of themselves. However, the research above suggests that above and beyond lifestyle differences the distinct outcomes associated with optimism could be attributed to optimists ability to recover from adversity better, view negative events as isolated and specific, as well as anticipate and respond proactively to stressors.

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BBC: Optimistic women ‘live longer’

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Optimism and Breast Cancer

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Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

smileIt has long been assumed that positive affirmations are the key to happiness. In fact, there are countless books, websites, and resources dedicated to encouraging people to engage in positive thinking by repeating favorable statements about the self. Oprah Winfrey, one of the most iconic social figures in the United States, often encourages her viewers to engage in self-affirmation. However, recent work has found that these practices may actually undermine self-esteem for certain people.

Joanne Wood and colleagues found that when compared to high self-esteem individuals, people with low self-esteem who repeated positive affirmations (e.g., “I am a lovable person”) actually experienced a worse mood and expressed feeling less lovable. Moreover, when low self-esteem individuals were asked to focus on the ways in which positive affirmations were true of them (positive focus), they actually experienced worse mood, lower state self-esteem, and lower happiness than individuals who were instructed to think about how the affirmation may or may not be true of them (neutral focus).

These findings indicate that while positive thinking may be somewhat effective for people high in self-esteem, it is likely to be detrimental for low self-esteem individuals, the group these affirmations are supposed to help. One can hope that with further research, the next wave of self-help products will be beneficial for the ones who need it most.

square-eye The Oprah Winfrey Show: The Secret and Positive Affirmation

square-eye Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others.

Cubicle-phobia in the 21st century

cubicleThere is nothing new about a concern for losing touch with nature. “When we get piled upon one another in large cities,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to Uriah Forest, “we shall become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another as they do there” (p. 479 in J.P. Boyd (Ed.) The papers of Thomas Jefferson). Cannibalism or not, Europe seems to be doing just fine.

Yet New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently took a break from Darfur and wrote two get-back-to-nature pieces. The first is a report on Richard Louv’s book detailing “nature-deficit disorder,” which along with obesity and autism is what Louv suggests will happen to kids who are stuck indoors. Kristof’s second piece describes “how to pry yourself and your family off the keyboard and venture into the wild.”

The implications of needing access to nature are rather unpleasant. Namely, those who recreate the most are white and middle- to upper-class – the same people who can both afford to hike and camp (“Try the ‘ultralight’ gear,” suggests Kristof), and who have the means and leisure to leave the city.

Nevertheless, some wilderness lovers both praise the essentialness of their experiences, and account for why they sleep under a tent while a guy in Philadelphia sleeps under an overpass. Attribution theory explains how people link the outcome of having access to nature (and others’ lack of access) to internal rather than external attributes. Kristof’s how-to guide is meant to give people the extra motivation for that trip to nature. And rather than because of structural conditions, Louv suggests a major reason children stay away from nature is fear.

Kristof’s how-to guide is said to be for readers who responded to the first article, “Camping in the woods sounds gloriously refreshing! But I wouldn’t know where to begin, and, ugh, what if I get eaten by a bear?”