Obesity Experts Examine Rise Among Kids

Concerned about their children’s weight, a majority of parents don’t want schools to exchange time spent in physical education classes for time spent sitting in classrooms, says a new American Obesity Association study.

The survey of more than 1,000 parents nationwide was released at the opening of a national conference on obesity at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. today. In addition to the 80 percent of parents opposed to fewer PE classes, the survey found almost 30 percent are “somewhat” or “very” concerned about their kids’ weight and lifestyle lessons they are being taught at school.

“With the length of PE classes going down and their children’s weight going up, parents want their schools to teach more than reading, writing and arithmetic,” says AOA vice president Judith S. Stern, R.D. “Parents expect schools to teach children healthy patterns of eating and exercise, lifestyle choices they will carry into adulthood.”

A National Epidemic? About 25 percent of all American children and adolescents are overweight — a 20 percent increase over the last 10 years, and a figure that has some experts calling childhood obesity an epidemic.

At the same time, physical education classes in public schools are decreasing, with only one quarter of schools currently requiring students to take physical education classes, down from 42 percent in 1991.

A national drive to improve children’s academic performance has come at the expense of what some consider less important pursuits, including physical activity, according to Dr. Carl Gabbard of Texas A&M University in College Station. There are no federal mandates that require physical education be offered in the schools, and many states have no laws that address the issue.

“Schools need to take some responsibility not only for the cognitive improvement of our children, but physical well being too,” says Dr. Leslie Bonci, director of the Sports Medicine Nutrition Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Having children sit in a classroom all day without any physical activity may not only lead to increased weight, but decreased ability to function well in the classroom.”

She believes schools need to become “primary health providers,” offering nutritious food and a safe environment for physical education.

But some experts say schools are more likely to be a main source for the problem, rather than a solution.

“The number of schools with fast food franchises, sweetheart contracts with the soft drink companies, and multiple vending machines would surprise even the most jaded person,” says Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., a professor of public health at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in New Haven, Conn. “In some ways, the schools have become an agent for obesifying the American child.”

Half of Americans Overweight

About half of American adults are overweight, and researchers predict that over the next 20 years, that figure will rise to 75 percent. The AOA conference for public health officials, policy leaders and physicians will examine the causes — as well as treatment and prevention strategies — for obesity, the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

A similar conference took place in Belgium in May, where European health experts met to discuss the soaring childhood and adult obesity levels there. They called for urgent action to prevent a “lost generation” of children prone to diabetes, heart disease and cancers when they grow up.

Most experts attribute the widespread rise in obesity levels to our increasingly sedentary activity and poor food choices.

“Unfortunately, our public schools are not doing the job in addressing either of these issues,” says Dr. Stephen B. Sondike, director of the Nutrition and Wellness program at the Adolescent Health Center of Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. “After school, kids have more homework than ever. Also, school lunches are notoriously unhealthy,” he says.

Sondike points out, however, that parents share the responsibility for their children’s health, and can contribute by limiting sedentary activity at home and providing healthy meals for their kids.

“Obesity is a problem that can only be addressed if everybody involved in the child’s life plays a role,” he says.