The Green Bay area is pumping up efforts to fight childhood obesity and promote exercise, mirroring a national movement toward trying to raise fit kids.
No longer an isolated program here or fitness class there, officials and grassroots organizers in our community — like many nationwide — are intensifying their push to get kids healthy.
Their efforts got another boost this week, when first lady Michelle Obama unveiled an action plan for her childhood obesity task force. Closer to home, schools, doctors and a host of community organizations are working together in the fight.
Experts say the time to act is now, as sedentary lifestyles, poor nutrition and other factors lead to increased health issues among obese youth.
“We are seeing a definite trend in diabetes — the numbers are escalating at a very alarming rate,” said Dr. James Gast, family practice physician with Bellin Health, “diabetes being diagnosed at a young age, the risk of heart disease … high blood pressure (is) being diagnosed routinely in high school-aged kids.”
Eleven percent of Wisconsin high school students were obese in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics were available, according to the statewide Youth Risk Behavior Survey. More than 60 percent did not meet recommended levels of physical activity, and almost half did not attend physical education classes.
The survey also showed poor nutritional habits, including not getting enough fruits and vegetables — more than 80 percent of students — and daily soda consumption — a quarter of respondents.
A community approach
Local experts say nutrition and physical activity are two of the key factors in fighting childhood obesity. But they’re also taking a more broad-based view of the issue, examining everything from genetics to environmental and psychological factors.
“We’re trying to understand that, for example, in our world … a child having a pediatrician and getting all their immunizations and doing all that stuff right, is nowhere near what’s needed to really move the scale,” said Pete Knox, executive vice president, Bellin Health, “and that so much of what needs to be approached and dealt with lies outside of really any one entity, and it really is the emergence of the community, or combining resources, to achieve our goal.”
Bellin is working with the Green Bay Press-Gazette and other agencies on a proposed initiative called “Greater Green Bay: Where Kids Count,” as part of the paper’s Think Bold initiative. The communitywide initiative will focus on the needs of children, starting with raising healthy kids, for the next 18 months.
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 20 percent of children ages 6 to 11 years were obese in 2008, up from 6.5 percent in 1980. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents ages 12 to 19 increased from 5 percent to more than 18 percent in the same timeframe.
Experts agree the lack of physical activity is one of the primary culprits in the increasing rates of childhood obesity.
“One of (the factors), I suspect, is an increase in sedentary activities,” said Dr. Susan Frangiskakis, pediatrician with Prevea Health, “specifically with an increase in screen time, as we’re seeing more kids on the computer longer, watching TV, texting. And when they’re doing these sedentary activities, they’re not doing as much physical activity.”
Getting kids moving, making it fun
Area schools and other agencies have taken charge of getting kids moving, from increasing time and quality of recess in some schools to forming organized kids training programs in conjunction with the Bellin Run and Cellcom Green Bay Marathon.
The Greater Green Bay YMCA and Green Bay Boys & Girls Clubs offer various programs that encourage activity, and work to make it fun.
Schools also are pushing better nutrition, including adding salad bars with “veggie of the week” features that encourage kids to eat healthy. Green Bay’s Chappell and Kennedy Elementary schools helped launch Bellin’s Thrive program, which provides salad bars, encourages increased activity and hosts family wellness nights at school.
The Green Bay School District sells healthier foods in school stores as part of a district-wide wellness policy, and keeps an eye on nutrition and physical activity, said Superintendent Greg Maass.
Today’s gym classes focus on a variety of fun activities kids can do outside the school day, said Maass, a former health and physical education teacher.
“Kids need to be able to have fun while they’re doing (the) activity,” he said, “so they want to do it either on their own, or with their friends.”
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction also has a role in the childhood obesity fight, encouraging quality physical education and providing resources for schools statewide, said Douglas White, the department’s director of student services/prevention and wellness.
“We’ve recognized that these are national health problems,” he said, “that impact student learning by increasing not only just the weight-to-height ratios, they do make worse chronic diseases that interfere with children’s ability to attend school and learn.”
A family affair
Getting parents on board also is crucial, experts say, because obesity and unhealthy behaviors often are generational.
If kids are getting a healthy message during the school day, it should be reinforced once they get home, Gast said.
“It’s a very hard sell,” he said, “because traditionally, very typically, when a child comes in that appears to be having an issue with obesity, there’s a family issue there that’s very similar. If a child is obese, chances are one or both of the parents are as well. If you can’t sell the parent on good diet and exercise, it’s going to be difficult for them to try and enforce it with their child, as well.”
Obesity tends to be generational, said Dr. Donald Beno, pediatrician with Aurora BayCare Medical Center, so change needs to be broad-based.
“I don’t think it’s going to get any better,” Beno said, “unless we take the time and money to put into the problem — and to really find solutions that are going to benefit them in the long run. The more our children are obese, they become obese adults (and) they have even more obese children later on.
“So we’ve really got to do something to help them, at the young age.”