Though Georgia remains mired in a child obesity epidemic, new statistics show the state is making slight improvements, particularly among the most overweight children.
The childhood obesity rate in Georgia fell to 16.5 percent, according to a new report by the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health based on a 2011 survey. That’s down from 21.3 percent based on the 2007 survey. But while the obesity rate fell almost 5 percent, the percentage of children who are overweight inched up slightly from 16 percent in 2007 to 18.5 percent in 2011, according to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children of the same age and sex with a Body Mass Index, which measures fatness, between the 85th and 95th percentile are considered overweight. Those above the 95th percentile are considered obese.
Georgia’s children have long ranked as some of the heaviest in the country, just behind those in Mississippi. This latest survey of children between ages 10 and 17 places Georgia in the No. 17 spot for obesity and No. 3 for overweight children. State officials pointed out that when both factors are combined, Georgia lands in the No. 10 spot.
“I think this drop could really be true,” said Vanetta Keyes, founder and executive director for C.H.O.I.C.E.S (the Center Helping Obesity in Children End Successfully) “There is so much more awareness today about childhood obesity. It’s more of a household word and concern, so I think we could really start to see that needle move in the right direction.”
Georgia faces a serious child obesity problem. Childhood obesity rates are still double and triple what they were back in the 1950s, when the President’s Council on Youth Fitness was founded. Children are not only fatter, they are weaker. A test given to a million schoolchildren in Georgia last year found that only 16 percent could pass the most basic fitness requirements while 20 percent couldn’t pass a single element of the five-part test, which included push-ups, running and flexibility. The results of that FitnessGram are an area of grave concern to Trisha Hardy, director of Child Wellness at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“So while this data is promising, we need to remember that there are still almost one million children in Georgia that are overweight or obese,” Hardy said. “Our kids are in a crisis.”
For real long-term, sustainable change, parents, health care providers, government leaders and schools all need to come together. That said, real change begins at home, she said.
“Parents have the power to encourage their families to be more physically active and they have the ability to role model healthy behaviors themselves,” said Hardy. “When it comes to nutrition, parents also decide what goes in the shopping cart at the supermarket each week. These are all simple steps we can take today.”
The hope, of course, is we may be starting to turn a corner. Keyes, who started her nonprofit about a decade ago, has focused on nutrition education. At health fairs she sets up booths with food – and magnifying glasses for kids to read the labels and learn more about what’s inside those packaged foods. She’s more likely to see kids pick up a box of granola bars and check out the label and examine just how much, fat, protein and carbohydrates the snack contains.
Keyes is also encouraged by new programs, from farm-to-school programs to more fresh fruit served at public schools to new, innovative ways to weave exercise into the school day. Students at Sope Creek Elementary School in east Cobb can start their morning (after the pledge of allegiance) by dancing Zumba or by choosing a combination of outdoor exercises including running, push-ups and jumping rope. On Thursday, students at Mary Lin Elementary School participated in a deskside exercise break. Olympians Ashton Eaton and Queen Harrison joined representatives from Go Noodle (www.gonoodle.com) to lead the free, interactive, Wii-like game (without the accessories). Shannon Barrett-Williams watched her son Cole and his third-grade class do long jumps and hurdles right in their classroom. She hopes to see short exercise breaks every day, not only for physical benefits but also to help kids concentrate, even excel in class.
“I think this could be used every day for short activity breaks,” said Barrett-Williams, also a professor of health and physical education at Georgia State University.
“Childhood obesity is something we talk at home about on a regular basis. We talk about limiting screen time, and we try to take walks in our neighborhood.”
Creatively folding exercise time into class time is something state officials are hoping to see more of. Last month, State Superintendent John Barge and Georgia Department of Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald sent letters to superintendents across the state urging them to add 30 minutes of exercise (in addition to PE classes) every day.
Estimate your or your child’s body mass index at this online site: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/BMI/bmicalc.htm.
While a new government report signals improvements with childhood obesity, obstacles remain:
— Only 52 percent of middle school students and 43 percent of high school
students in Georgia currently meet the CDC recommendations for physical
— More than 44 percent of Georgia’s middle school students and 39 percent of high
school students watch television for three or more hours on a school day.
— Only 17 percent of high school students in Georgia consume five or more
servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
— In Georgia, obesity-related hospitalizations of children aged 2 to 19 years increased 338 percent between 1999 and 2010.
SOURCE: Georgia Department of Public Health
To learn more about Georgia SHAPE, go to www.georgiashape.org
Children need a total of 60 minutes of physical activity every day. The activity can be moderate, but should make the heart beat faster and breathing heavier than normal.
Ways to encourage your children to get 60 minutes of exercise every day:
— Encourage your child to fully participate in physical education class.
— Check with your child’s physical education teacher to see what you can do at home to help improve your child’s health and fitness level.
— Help your child be prepared for class with comfortable clothes and athletic shoes.
— Encourage your child to be physically active at recess by playing games and sports. Encourage your child’s school to offer walking clubs or other activity programs during recess or after school.
— Playing sports is a great way to get exercise. But playing a team sport is not for everyone. If your child is not interested, don’t force the issue but try other ways to be active such as bicycling, yoga, dance and karate.
— Talk to your school about developing ways to increase physical activity throughout the day.
SOURCE: Georgia SHAPE, the state’s anti-obesity campaign