More than one-third of U.S. children between ages 10-17 are considered obese (16.4 percent) or overweight (an additional 18.2 percent), according to a report released last week by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That percentage has nearly tripled in the past 10 years, according to former Surgeon General David Satcher.
The report, titled "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2011," focuses on levels of obesity for U.S. citizens of all ages. For the data related to children, the report drew from the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, which determined obesity levels based on body mass index. The report reveals some troubling statistics for our nation's youth, to say the least.
Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of childhood obesity were in the South. Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia had childhood obesity rates above 20 percent; Illinois was the only non-Southern state above 20 percent (along with the District of Columbia). In 2003, when the last NSCH was conducted, only D.C., Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia were above 20 percent.
Nationwide, the report found that less than one-third of all children ages 6-17 engaged in at least 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity on a day-to-day basis. While the report notes that every state has some form of physical education requirements for students, it calls many of those programs "inadequate." (See more on that from my colleague Erik Robelen in the Curriculum Matters blog.)
Only 11 of the 50 U.S. states require their schools to provide physical activity or recess throughout the day. Keep in mind, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends that children engage in 60 minutes or more of physical activity on a daily basis. It's also worth noting that a Centers for Disease Control report from last year found that increased physical activity can lead to better academic success.
The report looks at levels of physical inactivity in adults (not children), and found that the 10 states with the highest rates of physical inactivity all ranked in the top 12 in terms of obesity. Coincidence? Highly unlikely.
With obesity costing U.S. employers an average of $73 billion in lost productivity, according to the report, the obesity epidemic presents a very real problem in an era where the federal government continuously searches for ways to cut costs. Americans reportedly spend $150 billion per year on health-care costs tied to obesity. And those numbers are only likely to go up if the obesity rates for younger generations don't significantly decrease.
The writers of the report make six key recommendations about how to reduce the prevalence of obesity in the U.S., including expanding the amount of physical activity in school and in out-of-school programs, ensuring that all food and drinks sold in schools meet or exceed the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and reducing youths' exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods.
Ginny Ehrlich, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, wrote a personal commentary included in the report titled, "Physical Activity in Schools is a 'Win-Win' From an Academic and Health Perspective." Despite barriers like time, resources, and staff, Ehrlich believes a little creativity can go a long way in terms of schools promoting physical activity for their students.
As the report authors conclude, "As a country, it's up to us to make sure we get our children off to a healthy start in life, and investing in our children is an investment in our future."