Satcher: Obesity Reaching Crisis Levels

ByMelinda T. Willis

Dec. 13, 2001 -- Citing an epidemic of obesity, Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher today called on communities and schools to help children and adults lose weight and stay healthy.

Satcher identified schools as central to efforts to prevent and decrease excess weight problems, and recommended they improve physical education programs and provide healthy food alternatives. Communities also must offer safe places to exercise, he urged.

"Many people believe that dealing with overweight and obesity is a personal responsibility," Satcher states in the forward to the report. "To some degree they are right, but it is also a community responsibility."

Obesity Growing Across Age Groups

An estimated 300,000 deaths may be attributed to obesity in the United States each year, and more than 60 percent of adults in 1999 could be classified as overweight or obese, according to the new report from the surgeon general.

But the problem is not just a concern for adults. The prevalence of obesity for adolescents has nearly tripled in the past two decades, making early intervention all the more critical.

According to the report, in 1999, 13 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 and 14 percent of those aged 12 to 19 were overweight.

"Whereas one time obesity was a condition that usually afflicted more middle-aged women, now it has swept across the entire age span, even down to several years old," says Dr. Steven Heymsfield, deputy director of the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York.

And the younger a person begins to carry excess weight, the greater the potential impact on their future quality of life. Weight gain and obesity are major contributors to poor health, increasing the risk of a number of medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, and even certain cancers.

According to the report, obese individuals have a 50 to 100 percent greater risk of premature death from all causes compared to individuals without excess weight.

"When you take a 5-year-old who is obese and you think forward 60, 70, 80 years, that person's life is shortened by their excess weight," says Heymsfield.

Schools Called to Act

Among the surgeon general's "calls to action" is that physical education be provided for all children in grades K through 12, an idea supported by many educators who feel that PE should be mandatory.

"I definitely think that PE and recess should be required in schools, not only to fight obesity, but because our minds and bodies work together," says Nancy Martin-Finks, a guidance counselor at South River Elementary School in Grottoes, Va. "Schools should be required to supply physical education along with academics."

Some educators feel that the scope of physical education should go above and beyond exercise. "PE should be more than running around a track," says Rani G. Hawes, assistant principal at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va. "It should include how to live healthy, how to develop and exercise program and eating nutritious food."

The surgeon general's report also emphasizes the importance of healthy food and beverage options on school campuses and at school events. And experts agree that the availability of vending machines in many schools plays an important role in feeding the obesity epidemic.

"The school has become an adverse environment for children to go to," says Dr. Francis Kaufman, head of the division of endocrinology at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles. "Not only are we serving fast food [in schools], we're encouraging children to drink soda. The soft drink industry is bidding for our children and we're selling them."

Other recommendations for action include reducing the amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors like watching television, and building physical activity into regular routines. Children should get at least 60 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week and adults should get at least 30.

Making children's health a priority shouldn't be difficult, say experts.

"This isn't going to cost zillions of dollars," says Kaufman. "We're not looking to reinvent something. We're looking to bring back what most of us had when we were growing up."

ABCNEWS' Monika Konrad contributed to this report.

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