The figures are in. According to the obesity statistics of the Center for Disease Control and prevention: 18% of adolescents age 12-19; 20% of children age 6-11; and 10% of children age 2-5 years are obese! This accounts for about 12.5million children between the ages of 2 and 19 years. With obesity being defined as a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex, obesity in children is clearly a concern for parents as well as schools. This makes the development of programs for prevention of childhood obesity in school a formidable goal.
First it is important to understand why obesity in children is such a problem. Obesity statistics show that childhood obesity affects the overall health of our children in a number of ways. Obese children have a propensity for: high blood pressure and high cholesterol which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease; increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes; breathing difficulties such as asthma and sleep apnea; joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort; and the possibility of developing fatty liver disease, gallstones and severe heartburn. In addition, obese children have a greater chance of growing into obese adults with its increased risk of serious health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers.
Let’s face it, though we all know that exercise is an important factor in prevention of obesity, most of our activities in school are sedentary. The children come to the classroom and in order to maintain discipline and an optimal learning environment,our students are required to sit at desks or tables for a large part of their school day. This is often followed by a ride home in a bus or car where very likely they will spend more hours in front of a television or computer, basically inactive. Add to this the enormous problem of readily available junk food snacks and high calories fast food meals, both in school and out, and it is a wonder that the obesity statistics are not higher.
So what can our schools do to combat this growing trend? Childhood obesity in school began to be addressed when the federal government mandated that local educational programs which participate in school meal programs have a school wellness policy in place by the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year. This provided an impetus for many schools to examine how to go about working on the prevention of obesity in children. This program requires that schools develop a wellness policy with goals for nutrition education, physical activity and other wellness activities; set nutritional guidelines for all food and beverages served outside of school meals (i.e. in school vending machine purchases and school parties/extra-curricular activities); and encourage parent and community involvement in the development and implementation of the program. The new proposed guidelines for changes in school lunch menus will hopefully be an additional boost to reducing the obesity statistics in our students.
Fortunately, there are many schools which have risen to the challenge and have been working aggressively towards prevention of obesity in children. This past spring 275 schools from 37 different states were honored at the Healthy Schools Forum. More than half the schools earning recognition serve predominantly African-American or Hispanic students with more than 60 percent located in lower-income communities. The schools ranging in location from Miami, Fl; to Los Angeles, CA have established healthy eating and physical activity programs and policies which meet or exceed standards set by The Alliance for a Healthier Generation. This alliance is a non-profit organization established to help reduce the incidence of childhood obesity by 2015 by empowering children nationwide to make healthy lifestyle choices. In June of this year, the Alliance received a$23million grant to help expand its programs. With the grant the Alliance hopes to assist 30,000, or more than a quarter of all elementary and secondary schools, to develop and implement programs to stem the tide of childhood obesity in school. The availability of this grant money is particularly important as most school funding is targeted for other equally important issues.
Even without the added dollars, schools can make changes in their programs to help promote prevention of obesity in children. In Northwest Elementary School in Amityville, NY, the children start their day with five to ten minutes of exercise in the gym. Students and teachers come together to jump start their day. This early morning activity helps to reduce stress and allows for brain stimulation by increasing blood circulation. Administrators can also see to it that the traditional recess time is used to promote physical activity. Traditionally, time was taken away from recess for behavioral difficulties. In an effort to change the childhood obesity in school statistics, extra recess could be earned and used as a positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior. Establishing inner grade sports leagues during recess, before or after school could be another relatively inexpensive way to aid in the prevention of obesity in children.
We as educators and administrators can play an important role in reversing the obesity statistics and prevention of obesity in children. By modeling making appropriate choices in the areas of exercise and food choices we can begin to address the issue of childhood obesity in school.
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