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How Schools Fight Youth Obesity During Tough Budget Times

It's no secret that schools have been forced to cut back, with many of those cuts targeting athletics, the arts, and after-school programs.

It's also no secret that this country is facing an obesity epidemic of epic proportions.

Two in three adults are considered overweight or obese in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Educators should be sounding the alarms, too, as more than one-third of U.S. children are now considered overweight or obese, according to a report Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader released earlier this year by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

With both of those factors very much in mind, over 200 policymakers gathered in Washington, D.C., on Thursday at the 3rd Childhood Obesity Prevention Summit, sponsored by the Leadership for Healthy Communities, a national program of the RWJF, to discuss potential solutions for the childhood obesity crisis. Given that President Obama declared September to be "National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month," the timing of the summit couldn't have been much better.

Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, compared the obesity crisis to the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, saying that we've already clearly identified the problem, but that "cultural shifts" are necessary to reverse the trend.

Where can schools help make headway in the youth obesity epidemic?

Attendees of the summit focused on two major areas: nutrition and physical activity. On the nutrition side, experts suggested using farm-to-school programs, increasing the number of healthy food options available to students, and reducing sugary drinks and other sweets in school vending machines. But, given that you're reading a K-12 sports blog, we'll focus on the latter.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, called physical activity a "wonder drug" in his keynote address, saying that "kids who get physical activity learn better. Their brains work better."

Earlier this year, I told you about a Maryland elementary school whose students have been boosting their fitness levels, paying more attention in class, and scoring higher on tests ever since the school started a running club in fall 2009.

Dr. Jim Sallis, the director of Active Living Research (a national program of the RWJF), stressed that the extra physical activity time doesn't necessarily need to come in the form of more physical education classes at the expense of other subjects' time.

Instead, Sallis suggested that schools work more intently on integrating physical activity into day-to-day classroom activities.

There's data to back up that suggestion: A Charleston, S.C., elementary school boosted test scores by 13 percentage points after combining physical activity with traditional classroom instruction, according to a study from earlier this year.

What else can be done? Elizabeth Walker, project director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, told attendees to contact the two consortia developing assessments for the common core standards to ensure that physical education and health don't get short shrift.

On the same panel, Susan Cooper, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, advised the group to "make data visual" when trying to persuade policymakers to take action against youth obesity. In other words: Don't just tell policymakers statistics like "One in three students will get diabetes". Pull three students out and demonstrate it. Giving statistics a "face" could have a larger impact, she said.

Marsha Katz, co-chair for the Leadership for Healthy Communities National Advisory Committee, encouraged local policymakers to create innovative programs and experiment on the local level. Tracy Fox, federal policy team leader for the RWJF Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity, agreed, saying, "Yours are the stories we need when we go to talk to policymakers."

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