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Physical Education in the Fight Against Childhood Obesity

Obesity is an ongoing epidemic in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that obesity levels reached 26.6% among American adults in 2007. This problem is also affecting younger and younger Americans: childhood obesity has almost tripled from 6.5% to 19.6% over the past 20 years, while teenage obesity more than tripled over the past 30 years.

A recent study published in the journal Family & Community Health, entitled “Let’s Get Moving: The Need for More Effective State-Level Physical Education Policies,” has revealed that state physical education policies are typically not mandated and vary greatly in time and grade-level requirements. There seems to be little distinction in policies between states with higher and lower percentages of youth suffering from obesity.

The study concludes with a call for “financial and infrastructure support for the implementation and evaluation of physical education policies... as well as innovative strategies including socioecological models to better address the obesity epidemic.” Mary Piniol, a nurse at a central Californian middle school, says that her state has made progress with after-school programs and fitness testing that begins at grade 7; students run a mile twice a week. The school has also begun to screen for risk factors so that some students can be referred to doctors.

However, there are broader economic and social forces that make it difficult to fight the childhood obesity epidemic. The problem is particularly prevalent among California’s Hispanic population due to the culture of food choices and the poverty that is endemic to that group.

“In order to eat healthy, it usually calls for you to eat fresh fruits and vegetables from the store, which requires more frequent visits to the store and the ability to pay some of those prices,” says Piniol. Oftentimes it boils down to choices like buying a bottle of soda, or a bottle of milk for three times that amount.

Furthermore, children nowadays live more sedentary lifestyles than their predecessors, sitting in front of screens and socializing through computers. This has been only partially ameliorated by more active gaming systems like the Nintendo Wii.

Children themselves are unaccustomed to making healthy eating choices and will often choose to eat large portions of unhealthy foods. “We do offer food options in the cafeteria, but it’s also competitive with the pizza parlors and the hamburger places that are nearby.

“Portion control is out of control compared to what it was years ago. I remember when sodas used to be 6 oz. Now it’s common to drink a 2 litre bottle in a sitting! We don’t tend to recognize how much we’re consuming.... We’re trying to cut back so that it should be the size of your hand.”

The effects of these factors have definitely materialized in the student population, Piniol says, with the increasing emergence of type-2 diabetes as a prime example. A disease that once predominantly plagued men and women in their 40s and 50s is now hitting 10-12 year-olds. “We’re seeing children in grades 4 through 7 developing type-2 diabetes early.”

Finally, there are economic problems to consider, as shrinking tax revenues and ballooning deficits are forcing many states to make cutbacks wherever possible. “There’s a competition of academics versus physical education,” Piniol says. “Kids go to school to learn – reading, writing, and ’rithmetic – so oftentimes athletics are pushed out. Boards are pushed out because they can’t afford it.”

However, this has negative results in the long run, because children suffering from obesity and related disorders often perform poorly in school due to their health problems.

“It’s not unusual for some kids to have [type-2] diabetes and not be aware of it,” Piniol says. “They start gaining weight, and they can’t lose the weight, and they’re not paying attention in class. A lot of teachers will assume that they’re just lethargic, or not interested, when it’s actually that their blood sugar is high and not stable. Once they get their blood sugar stabilized, then it improves their lifestyle.”

State policies often produce mixed results against deeply entrenched practices that are driven by underlying social and economic forces. It is the task of people on the front lines of the fight against obesity, people like Mary Piniol, to bear these facts in mind as they continue to promote healthy diets and lifestyles, one child at a time.

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