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Committees Seek Solutions to Childhood Obesity

Senate Hearing

On July 23, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families held the second of a two-part hearing on childhood obesity. The subcommittee held the first hearing on July 16 (see The Source, 7/18/08).

Chair Chris Dodd (D-CT) said, “In any emergency, you need an effective, coordinated response. That is why I am proud to announce today on behalf of Senators Harkin, [Jeff] Bingaman [D-NM], and myself that we are introducing the Federal Obesity Prevention Act that will marshal the resources and manpower of the federal government to tackle the obesity problem head on. Our bill will create a federal interagency task force to review what the federal government is already doing, coordinate its efforts, and establish a government-wide strategy for preventing and reducing obesity. In the near future, we’ll be working with Sen. Bingaman on other complimentary legislation. Childhood Obesity is a medical emergency of hurricane-like proportions. We know this storm is coming — we know how strong it is going to be. And we know the havoc it is going to wreak — on our families, our society, and on our health care system, which is already strained to the breaking point. It’s time we use the tools to fight it. What’s missing is the political will and leadership to take that fight on.

Dr. Joseph Thompson, surgeon general for the state of Arkansas, said, “Arkansas is similar to many other southern states — at risk for, and paying the price for, poor health. Compared with the nation as a whole, we have disproportionately high rates of disease and infant mortality, low life expectancy, and low economic status. Like other southern states, Arkansas is also disproportionately burdened by obesity risks in both adults and children…However, in many ways Arkansas is different because we do not accept the status quo and are doing something about childhood obesity. In 2003, we passed Act 1220, which led to the first and most comprehensive legislatively mandated childhood obesity prevention program in the country. Specifically, the law included provisions aimed at: improving access to healthier foods in schools, including changing access to, and contents of, vending machines; establishing physical activity requirements; creating local parent advisory committees for all schools; publicly disclosing…and reporting each student’s body mass index (BMI) to his or her parents in the form of a confidential health report.”

Dr. Thompson continued, “As the director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, I led the implementation of the BMI assessment program, and I am proud to say that we have halted the epidemic in Arkansas. It took the work of the schools, the community, parents, teachers, and kids alike to commit to this system-wide change for the good of their own health and the future of our state and our country…When we began measuring our kids’ BMIs in school year 2003/2004, nationally a little less than 34 percent of children ages two to 19 were either overweight or obese. Based on statewide evaluations of virtually all public school students in Arkansas, more than 38 percent of our children and teens were in the two highest weight categories. However, during the next three years (20052007) we found that we had stopped progression of the epidemic — the rate of overweight and obesity remained virtually unchanged at 38 percent per year. While the rate of childhood obesity in Arkansas is still too high, we are encouraged that our efforts have been successful and that the epidemic has been halted in our state. Now, we can turn our efforts to reversing the trend in our state and sharing lessons learned to inform national efforts.”

Philip Dwyer, president and chief executive officer of the Central Connecticut Coast YMCA, said, “The YMCA has learned that the majority of kids and families need support in achieving their health and well-being goals. We call these individuals ‘health seekers’ they want to improve, but making everyday healthy choices to be healthy and live well is frequently a struggle, even when it has obvious advantages. Health Seekers, whether children or adults, are different from the ‘already active’ — those who have and will stay active. Convincing ‘health seekers’ to adopt healthier lifestyles, even when it has obvious advantages, is often difficult. Changing lifestyles of youth and families requires a lengthy period, sometimes many years, from the time new ideas are first presented to the time they are widely adopted. For the ‘health seekers,’ this journey to better health is strengthened when they have supportive relationships and environments that allow them to make more consistent healthy choices. This is what the YMCA does everyday — provides the knowledge and supports that encourage healthy living by allowing kids and families to find the joy in living healthy lives through the support of family, friends, and the community at large. More kids and families need these supports. This epidemic of youth obesity will only be addressed by teaching and persuading youth that increased physical activity and improved nutrition is in their best interest; helping them make this decision…then implementing it over a lifetime and confirming the benefits of this changed behavior. And this journey will only happen through relationship building. Therefore, the key question for this committee, our society, and especially for those of us committed to tackling the youth obesity issue: How do we provide more supports and healthier environments to speed up the rate in which youth and families begin to make everyday healthy choices and begin living healthier lives?”

Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, said, “The American Beverage Association agrees that the obesity crisis is a complex, national challenge that requires us to re-examine old practices and find new solutions. All of us — policymakers, parents, educators, [and] industry and community leaders have a responsibility to do our part to help teach our children how to have a healthy life style. I am proud to report that the American beverage industry is doing just that. In May of 2006, the American Beverage Association, Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages, The Coca-Cola Company, and PepsiCo teamed up with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association) to develop new School Beverage Guidelines that limit calories and increase nutritious beverages in schools. We agree with parents and educators that schools are special places and play a unique role in shaping our children’s health. The guidelines provide students with a broad array of lower- and no-calorie options along with nutritious and smaller-portioned beverages to help kids build healthy habits as they learn to balance the calories they consume with the calories they burn. The guidelines are designed to balance children’s nutritional and hydration needs with appropriate caloric consumption for their age.”

House Hearing

On July 24, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on “The Benefits of Physical and Health Education for Our Nation’s Children.”

Chair George Miller (D-CA) said, “Just last week, the National Institutes of Health released a new study showing that kids are exercising less intensely as they move into their teenage years. At the very time that kids are exercising less, schools are also cutting back on recess and physical education classes. Daily physical education classes, once routine in schools, are now offered by less than 10 percent of all public schools…Multiple studies have shown that regular physical activity has positive effects on student learning. Not only does consistent exercise help students succeed academically, but it can also strengthen their concentration levels and cognitive skills. Given these trends, it is extremely disappointing that the Bush administration’s latest and final budget eliminates federal funding that would help expand physical education programs in schools. Schools are already being strained by skyrocketing food and energy prices and declining federal and state investments. Terminating this vital grant program takes an unfair toll on schoolchildren especially low-income children who often have fewer opportunities to exercise outside of school.”

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) testified about his efforts to increase physical education in schools. “It was Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘A child who is not physically well cannot learn.’ His words could not be more true today, as childhood obesity in the United States reaches epidemic proportions, jeopardizing not only the health of our kids, but also their academic development. In order to strengthen physical education in our nation’s schools and address the childhood obesity epidemic, I am an original cosponsor of the Fitness Integrated with Teaching (FIT) Kids Act, H.R. 3257. This bill would engage parents and the public by asking all schools, districts, and states to report on students’ physical activity, and would help faculty and staff learn new ways to promote kids’ healthy lifestyles and physical activity through professional development opportunities. The bill would also authorize a study and pilot program to support effective ways to combat childhood obesity and improve healthy living and physical activity for all children. The FIT Kids Act is a bipartisan bill and has the support of more than forty combined health, education, and physical activity organizations. This legislation is critical to strengthen physical education, which will improve academic performance and provide students with the physical activity and education to lead healthy lifestyles.”

Dr. Russel Pate, professor at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, testified on behalf of the American Heart Association. Dr. Pate said, “The reduction in physical education in schools has occurred for a variety of reasons, including budget constraints, lack of availability of outdoor space and adequate facilities, and an increased emphasis on meeting academic objectives such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Instructional time for physical education as part of total instructional time during the school day has dropped by 35 percent since NCLB enactment, although there are likely many reasons for the decline. But ironically, reducing physical education and physical activity during the school day may actually undermine a school’s ability to meet academic standards. A new field of research is providing encouraging evidence that physical activity may help with brain function and activity, and other recent studies have found a positive correlation between aerobic fitness and academic performance. Normal-weight children also have lower rates of school absenteeism than obese children and may also have reduced rates of tobacco use, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. There are many opportunities — in addition to the traditional PE [physical education] curriculum — for schools to encourage students to be active before, during, and after school. For example, schools can promote walking and biking to and from school; link to community outdoor recreational opportunities, integrate technology into physical activity opportunities, partner with families to promote physical activity at home, provide recess for young children; and promote the creation of clubs, intramural sports, and interscholastic sports programs that meet the physical activity needs and interests of all students. Some schools are even allowing students to burn off calories in the classroom using innovative programs that have been designed to incorporate physical activity into the delivery of the academic curriculum.”

Richard Simmons, fitness expert and advocate, said, “Five years ago my mail shifted dramatically. I get thousands of emails a day, but when the No Child Left Behind Act [P.L. 107-110] came about, I got lots of letters from parents and children saying ‘my kid is overweight,’ ‘my kid has high cholesterol.’ So…I put out a questionnaire on and 60,000 people filled out this questionnaire and I learned what was happening in schools all over America. I took a trip to Washington to meet with Congressman Wamp and Congressman [Ron] Kind [D-WI]. I told them my ideas. I began another campaign on my website asking people to write to their [Members of Congress] and presidential candidates in order to let [them] know how important this is.”

Mr. Simmons continued, “[E]veryone is not a jock, everyone cannot play sports, everyone cannot run. But everyone can be fit. It is not important that you are a jock, it is important that you have your health, and our children, right now, do not have it. I have a vision. I know a very economical way to bring fitness to every child, in every school, in the United States of America. There are hundreds of thousands of fitness instructors that travel around and teach classes. I want to head and be part of this committee to train teachers to go into the school systems and teach the three things that we all need: we all need cardio, we all need strength training, and we all need stretching.”

Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI); Lori Rose Benson, director of the Office of Fitness and Health Education for the New York City Department of Education; Tim Brown, former Oakland Raiders wide receiver; and Robert Keiser, student advisor to Florida Governor Charlie Crist’s Council on Physical Fitness, also testified.

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