Childhood Obesity

Growing up fat in a culture of inactivity.Childhood ObesityGrowing up fat in a culture of inactivity.

Been to a playground lately?

More often then not, the swing sets are not swinging. There is no monkeying around on the monkey bars. The teeter-totters are not teetering.

Where are the children? On their sofas watching television. At their desks surfing the Internet. On the carpet playing a videogame. Which means they are not exercising. Add to that a diet filled with fast food that is jam-packed with fat, carbohydrates and grease and you get an equation that adds up to childhood obesity.

Over the past two decades, childhood obesity has become epidemic in the United States, leading many youngsters to develop risk factors for chronic diseases. Recent studies indicate that the percentage of overweight children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past two decades – from 7 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 1999-2002 – and more than tripled among adolescents from 5 percent to 16 percent. It’s an epidemic of obesity that threatens the health of future generations.

Most of these overweight youngsters and teenagers have one or more risk factors related to heart disease, from elevated cholesterol to high blood pressure. If a child or teen is overweight, he or she has an increased risk of becoming an overweight or obese adult at risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis.



Obese children risk becoming obese adults

The American Heart Association says halting this progression must begin early in childhood by establishing good eating habits and introducing regular exercise. The organization says that avoiding junk food and empty calories, while assuring that children eat the proper amount for their age, size and activity levels, will enable them to reach adulthood without obesity putting their future health at risk.


How schools can help

Every school day, 54 million young people attend nearly 123,000 private and public schools across the nation. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation says this makes schools uniquely able to use their health programs to have a positive effect on students’ long-term health education and social well-being. In addition, 6 million adults work in schools as teachers, nurses, administrators and other staff. Collectively, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population can be found in the school community. Because of the size and accessibility of this population, the Alliance believes school health programs are one of the most efficient ways to
encourage healthy-lifestyle development.

Lorri Pilkington, a registered nurse and the coordinator of health and nursing services for Leon County Schools, lives and breathes the issue of childhood obesity. Seeking to get a sense of where things stand for students in Leon County, in the fall of 2004, Pilkington and her staff started tracking 17,000 students in kindergarten, first grade and third through eighth grade. The results showed 36.2 percent of children were either overweight or at risk for becoming overweight. This is higher than national rates but consistent with the reports available from other Southern states.

Pilkington’s staff sent a mass-mailing to parents to let them know if their child’s body weight was in one of the following categories: “under,” “normal,” “at risk” or “excessive.” Pilkington said the goal was to give parents’ crucial information.

“This is about health risks,” she said. “And parents need to be aware that their children are having serious health consequences because of decisions and actions that we’re making as parents.”

Pilkington said she is proud of the efforts she and her staff are making.

“We wanted to know, ‘What is our state of wellness?’” she said. “We knew we wanted to do some innovative wellness initiatives targeting students. We needed to determine if we are correct in our efforts, and that’s why the district has gone forward with this data collection.

“This data has opened up an opportunity for us,” Pilkington said. “We have partnered with FSU’s College of Medicine to analyze what we have collected. We were on a shoestring budget when we started this. In fact, there was no budget. Yet I had all this data – this powerful information. And I knew that in the right hands it could be more powerful. The FSU students took my data and did an incredible research paper. No one has done this large a study in Florida.”

During the 2005-2006 school year, Pilkington’s staff  was forced to abandon the effort because of a lack of resources. Now, they’re back at it for the 2006-2007 school year. Pilkington said she is optimistic about its use in the future.

“Leon County Schools doesn’t have all the answers, but we know there’s a problem and we play a part in this,” she said. “We have created a number of wellness programs. We’re trying to change our culture of inactivity and trying to bring awareness to the choices our families and parents make so they can make better choices.”

Pilkington said students are getting larger because of our lifestyles. Everything is easier and more convenient, catering to inactivity and laziness.

“Everybody is getting larger – students of all ages, adults of all ages,” she said. “We’re not as physically active, and yet we’re consuming more calories. It’s an imbalance. You know, the equation is supposed to be calories in, calories out. But we’re not expending as much energy. We’ve made everything easier on ourselves. We drive everywhere; we have remote controls. Kids used to be our remote controls, but now all we have is a little thumb action to change over 100 channels. It’s a different culture and a different time we live in.

“Our screen time has increased,” Pilkington said. “That includes anything with a screen: a TV, a video game, a computer. It is sad, and we’ve done this to ourselves with all of the wonderful conveniences to make our life easier. It’s absolutely working against us.”


Local obesity-fighting efforts

The Leon County school system is working to tip the scales in favor of children and their health. If there is a grant or program out there, it is vying to be a part of it. Here is a listing of what is being done in our schools to counter the trend of overweight and inactivity:

Carol M. White PEP Grant
This physical education program works to revamp Leon County’s PE program. Nearly a half-million dollars is dedicated to changing PE as we know it with physical activity that builds a student’s confidence, Pilkington said. And children don’t have to be student athletes to enjoy it. “Not every child is naturally an athlete,” she said. “This grant will incorporate more movement and activity and will work with students of all skill levels to increase their activity.”

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation Grant
Three of the 240 schools in the nation chosen to participate in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (formed through the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation) are in Leon County. Pilkington said that’s not an accident.

“When we heard about this opportunity, we jumped on it,” she said. “Riley Elementary, Griffin Middle and Godby High were selected. It’s a feeder pattern, so that as students progress from grade level to grade level, we can continue to follow them from kindergarten all the way until their senior year. They’re getting a unique opportunity to develop their own wellness assessment.”

With this grant, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and school administrators will work with restaurants, food and beverage companies, sports-equipment manufacturers and the fitness industry to make changes that encourage healthier eating and more physical activity. They will develop innovative approaches to encourage more-healthy food options, increase physical activity during and after school, and implement staff wellness programs. They also will create a “for kids, by kids” movement to mobilize youngsters and communities to take charge of their own health. And they will work with professional associations and other health-care groups to create tools and programs that help providers better recognize, prevent and treat obesity in children.

Capital Health Plan Champions Program
This program provides free before- and after-school fitness activities for area students. A collaborative effort between Leon County Schools, the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce’s WorldClass Schools, Titus Sports Academy and Capital Health Plan (CHP), organizers expect the program to be offered in all Leon County public schools – elementary through high school – in little more than a year.

The techniques practiced in the CHP Champions program are designed by the Titus Sports Academy to help children improve their physical development in the areas of coordination, flexibility, agility, endurance, speed and strength. Participants learn in an extremely supportive and encouraging environment where they set personal goals and monitor their own performance.

During the fall of 2005, a pilot program was tested at Gilchrist Elementary School. Sue Conte, CHP’s senior vice president of marketing and administration, explains how it began:

“A total of 89 students voluntarily enrolled to participate in the Gilchrist pilot program . . . and 72 students completed the program,” Conte said. “During the spring of 2006, 106 students voluntarily enrolled and 77 students completed the program. Significant improvements were noted in fitness capacity, with more than 70 percent of students showing improvement in four different fitness assessments. In assessments designed to measure improvement in gross motor skills, a majority of students improved across all categories, with one of those categories showing 100 percent of students making improvement.”

Student surveys showed that not only were the kids getting more fit, they also enjoyed being a part of the program – and were more active after they went home. Conte said that even parents and teachers were thrilled with the results.

“Parent comments were strongly positive, with 100 percent of parents reporting their child enjoyed participating,” she said. “Parents also reported successful outcomes for the program’s objectives to improve the health and fitness of students, with 89 percent agreeing that their child’s coordination improved and 94 percent that cardiovascular endurance improved. Positive changes in other areas of their children’s lives were also noticed by parents. Many parents have reported their children are more active when they get home, are sleeping better and feeling better, and are experiencing greater self-esteem.”

CHP Champions was introduced to 10 Leon County schools in the fall semester of 2006. These schools were Gilchrist, Oak Ridge, Canopy Oaks, Chaires, Sabal Palm, Astoria Park, Riley and Bond elementary schools, and Griffin and Fairview middle schools. Ten more schools will be added in spring 2007, and all Leon County public schools will offer the program by spring 2008. The CHP Champions program will be introduced to all public schools in Gadsden, Jefferson and Wakulla counties within five years.

Ruediger’s fitness trail
One local school has taken it upon itself to find a creative way to get kids excited about fitness. Ruediger Elementary PTO President Dornell Hunt applied for and ultimately received a Lowe’s grant for a jogging trail at the school. The PTO, Ruediger staff members and Navy engineers then designed and installed the jogging trail. Ruediger’s Principal, Carolyn Spooner, said the trail offers a huge morale boost.

“The jogging trail has been a dream of the PE coach, Larry Kendrick, and faculty at Ruediger Elementary, but due to funding (it) was not something the school could afford,” Spooner said. “Thanks to the PTO and community efforts, the dream is now a reality for students at Ruediger Elementary.”

Hunt said she was motivated to help the kids at the school because of the sad state of the health of today’s students.

“Child obesity and juvenile diabetes are increasing at an alarming rate,” she said. “When I walk the halls at the school and see these elementary children who are already struggling with weight issues, it is scary. I know if they do not get the information and training to start working toward a healthy weight and lifestyle, they will face many, many health concerns early in their lives – some of them even life-threatening. When I have driven to the high school campus to pick up my niece, I was floored at the number of students who would be classified as obese. These kids do not realize that their joints won’t hold up until they are 40, and if they develop juvenile diabetes or if they are already a diabetic, that this is a lifelong disease that will need constant monitoring and lifestyle changes to keep under control.”

Hunt’s effort has paid off. The trail consists of both jogging and walking trails that can be used by classes throughout the day. Principal Spooner said it’s great for everyone on the campus.

“It enhances students’ physical stamina and fitness as they walk to and from the lunchroom, media center or technology lab,” she said. “Similarly, staff and families may use both trails before and after school. The jogging trail has activity stations at spaced intervals for pull-ups and sit-ups. The jogging trail is a combination of running and stamina-building activities that are fun and help develop students’ physical fitness levels. Similarly, the walking trail is a combination of walking activities such as hopping, jumping, stretching and walking.”

Lowe’s Toolbox for Education grant applications ( are accepted twice a year, and a school can receive up to $5,000. The grants can be used for any PTO-sponsored event, and schools are allowed to receive one grant from them each year.


How Parents Can Help their Kids

Capital Health Plan’s chief medical officer, Dr. Nancy Van Vessem, said that parents play an important role in helping their children stay at healthy weight.

“Limit TV/gaming/computer activity to two hours a day,” she said. “Push them to dance, play outside, get involved in sports. Acknowledge that you control your children’s calories and when you feed them too much of the wrong foods, you are contributing to their possible problems with being overweight for life. In particular, avoid the foods you know that you shouldn’t eat. Don’t buy them and bring them home to tempt the family.”

Start spending more time with your children doing something active. Go for a bike ride or a walk. You’ll get to know your kids and you’ll find it’s more meaningful than going to a movie. You’ll enjoy each other’s time and you’ll laugh together. And instead of just shuttling the kids from one organized sport to another running from drive-thru to drive-thru, why not sit down and enjoy a healthy meal at home followed by a game of catch, tennis, hopscotch or “Ring Around the Rosie”?

R.N. Lorri Pilkington agreed and said she worried parents will become discouraged because they feel they need to change their whole world. She said that’s not the answer.

“Baby steps are the best,” she said. “It’s called conscious parenting, being aware of the choices you make. Start making healthier choices. Start in moderation. There’s nothing wrong with going out to eat, but plan wisely. Cut out just one trip through the drive-thru a week. This is a long journey. It starts with one small step. You don’t have to remake your life, just pay attention to the little things. You’ll make a big impact.”


A Technological Scavenger Hunt 

How do you get kids who are addicted to technology to explore the great outdoors again? WFSU thinks it has the answer. The public television station is teaming up with the Tallahassee Parks and Recreation Department, the Boys & Girls Club of the Big Bend and Hawks Rise Elementary School to get kids outside and moving. The project, “Kids Hunt for Health,” is part of a national public-broadcasting health initiative designed to raise awareness on increasing obesity rates and heart disease and also create action steps to engage individuals and communities toward better health. In August 2006, WFSU was awarded a grant from the Take One Step project to pursue this challenge locally.

The project, targeting kids ages 8 to 11, got under way in November and will run through the rest of the school year. It is centered around something called “geocaching.”
WFSU Director of Educational Services Kim Kelling Engstrom explained that “WFSU utilizes Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology to get kids moving outdoors and exploring nature. Geocaching uses a GPS handheld device to find hidden treasures or clues in schoolyards, hiking trails and parks throughout the community.”
Picture it as a modern-day scavenger hunt, integrating current technology with good old-fashioned fun.

“I started thinking about how children play today,” Kelling Engstrom said. “Most are in programmed activities or plugged into their Playstations, TV or computer. How do we get them back outside and connecting with nature? I happened to hear a story about geocaching, and that led me to design a project where we use ‘cool’ technology to unplug kids from inside and get them outside and moving.”

The kids who participate in this project wear pedometers (provided by CHP) that measure how many steps they are taking through this activity versus kids who are not participating. But the ultimate goal is to get kids excited about being outside and taking a hike.

“The thrill of the hunt will energize that ordinary walk in the woods,” Kelling Engstrom said. “We also want them to get their parents involved. If kids see this is a fun activity that they are doing in their after-school programs, they will want to do it on the weekends as well. We are setting up incentive programs where if the kids go on a hunt on the weekend with their family, they can enter that data onto our Web site and earn credit toward cool prizes – such as their own GPS unit. We also would like to make GPS units available to check out through local libraries so this activity is easy and inexpensive for families to participate in. Again, it’s about removing barriers for family participation.”

Kids can go on established geocache trails that can be accessed through the Web site or can create their own.

What to Eat

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture make the following recommendations:

Calories: Balance calories between the amount you eat and the amount of energy you burn. For moderately active people between the ages of 31 and 50, recommended calories would be 2,000 per day for women and 2,400 to 2,600 for men.

Nutrition: Eat a variety of foods that are high in nutrients and low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars and salt. Follow government recommendations such as the Food Guide Pyramid (

Fruits and Vegetables: Eat at least 41⁄2 cups of fruits and vegetables a day if you have a 2,000-calorie diet. Eat more or less depending on the calorie level.
Carbohydrates: Eat fiber-rich whole fruits and vegetables and three servings of whole grains daily. Eat and drink little added sugar or caloric sweeteners.

Dairy Products: Choose fat-free or lower-fat milk or milk products. Switching from full-fat dairy products results in additional calorie savings – 50 calories for every cup of whole milk that is replaced with 1-percent milk.

Fat: Keep fat intake between 20 percent and 35 percent of total calories. Keep trans fats as low as possible. Get no more than 10 percent of your calories from saturated fats and no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily.

Salt: Limit salt to about one level teaspoon a day.

Alcohol: If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation – about one drink per day for women and two for men.

Sugar: Limit foods and beverages with added sugars. Individuals who consume high-sugar foods or beverages – sodas, desserts and candy – tend to over-consume total calories, which leads to weight gain.

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