The Public Wants a Helping Hand for Obese Children

We've all heard the statistics about childhood obesity; rates of unhealthy body weight among children and adolescents have tripled since the 1980s. But new studies show it's a problem that Americans are concerned with and support action against.

Respondents in a study published in January's American Journal of Preventive Medicine considered childhood obesity as serious of a problem as tobacco use and violence. Respondents also supported most school-, community- and media-based strategies that include offering health information, limiting unhealthy food promotion, and increasing healthy nutrition and physical activity choices. Here's the not-so-good news: They were generally opposed to regulatory and tax or cost-based interventions, and they did not think that childhood obesity was as big of a problem as drug abuse. Of those surveyed, women in general and individuals with higher levels of education showed greater support for these interventions while parents with children at home were less supportive.

So, just what are the fitness community, government and the public doing to help? One example of ongoing efforts comes from Louisiana. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals launched a four-month competition in February to get young Louisianans moving. The Lighten Up Louisiana Kids program urges 5 to 17 year olds to group into teams of 10 to 30 and track their miles of activity on a wall chart. By the end of the program, teams that average 200 miles per person qualify for awards including medals, special recognition at the state capitol with Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco before state legislators and a picture of the team featured on a billboard in the team's hometown. Teams can be made of school classes, youth church groups, after-school groups, 4-H clubs, etc.

“The purpose of the Lighten Up Louisiana Kids program is to fight the obesity epidemic we are facing in Louisiana and nationwide,” Gov. Blanco said in a letter to Louisiana residents. “The program is a positive way to teach kids about the importance of being physically active and to show them that fitness can be fun.”

Teams are run by a team captain, who is an adult with access to the Internet (which is necessary to report miles, ask questions and download activity and nutritional resources for the group). The program is free for all participants and is in addition to Lighten Up Louisiana, a similar program for adults.

Over on the East Coast, Chelsea Piers in New York City opened a Kids Fitness Center in January complete with Fun Fit, a 90-minute class that combines strength training, cardio, flexibility and rock-climbing activities for children from 5 to 12 with kid-friendly equipment and exercises.

“Not every child will want to participate in competitive sports. This class gives them another outlet,” Peter Kormann, director of gymnastics at Chelsea Piers, said in a release about the class. “Additionally, this is the age, 5 to 12 years old, when life-long habits are formed. A child who is taught about fitness early will have a better chance of becoming an adult who cares about fitness.”

Finally, national, state and local organizations are trying to get more fitness into schools.

The Washington Action for Healthy Kids, a state team of the national nonprofit Action for Healthy Kids, released “The Learning Connection: The Value of Improving Nutrition and Physical Activity in our Schools.” The report shows how improving nutrition and physical activity in schools may not only help schools academically but also financially.

“Schools alone cannot solve the problem of childhood obesity, but they can and should have a positive influence on children's eating and physical activity behaviors,” Shelley Curtis of Children's Alliance and Action for Healthy Kids subcommittee co-chair, said.

The organization is also helping schools to develop local wellness policies — a policy now mandatory since Congress passed The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 in June 2004.

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