BEING THE mother of a 6-year-old, I go to lots of children's birthday parties. I've been noticing a phenomenon called precocious puberty, which hits girls especially hard, though increasingly I've noticed it in boys, too.

I'll find myself thinking, "Whoa! She's 7? She's developing breasts and looks like a little woman!" Or, "My goodness, he's 8 and already taller than me!"

Witnessing this has made me curious and, along with other moms I talk with, I'm concerned, worried and bewildered.

Even the experts don't seem to have an answer, though there are lots of questions about the impact of processed foods, obesity, stress, sedentary lifestyles and even whether ubiquitous plastics and pesticides in our environment are mimicking hormones.

The Mayo Clinic website defines precocious puberty as "when a child's body begins changing into that of an adult (puberty) too soon. Puberty that begins before age 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys is considered precocious puberty."

The phenomenon "includes rapid growth of bones and muscles, changes in body shape and size, and development of the body's ability to reproduce," the site says. It also notes that "the cause of precocious puberty often can't be found."

Well, it may not be scientific, but I have my own strong opinions about contributing factors to this and how we can address it.

I'm talking about three major issues: weight, lack of daily exercise and our sedentary lifestyle.

Experts have been saying for years that we're in the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity. Everybody sees it, yet no one wants to confront it.

Sadly, even when I try to get local pediatricians to broach the subject for my column, they are often squeamish and prefer not to speak on the record.

Is there a link between precocious puberty and being overweight or obese? I think so. We know for a fact that kids are mainly sedentary, yet many are consuming unprecedented amounts of calories. It's not uncommon these days to see 6-year-olds eating adult "supersized" portions - like four or five slices of pizza and washing it down with 24 or more ounces of soda.

Isn't that how factory farms fatten up livestock, by keeping them inactive and on calorie-rich diets?

As for exercise, when it comes to physical education, most schools are not making the grade. Many have all but canceled recess, and gym classes are almost extinct.

If our goal is to really bolster academic outcomes in reading, math and science, then getting rid of fitness is a bad move all around. More often than not, little tykes are tethered to their school desk, shuffling papers around like their office-worker parents. If sitting all day is awful for adult health and productivity, what do we think it's doing to our kids?

Ironically, exercise and kinesthetic learning techniques would help children learn better and faster. We also know exercise helps adults manage stress and improve focus, concentration and productivity. Can you just imagine what this would do for our children?

We all know that children are consuming too many empty calories and not getting enough daily exercise or enough movement. That, I believe, is linked to this precocious puberty - and to the poor academic performance that is so prevalent today.

If we are going to slow down precocious puberty, improve health and create better academic outcomes, children need more, not less, exercise.