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Affluence Found to Affect Students' Fitness, Obesity Levels

Far more students in affluent California districts passed the statewide physical-fitness test and are considered a healthy weight than students in low-income areas, according to recent reports by the Los Angeles Times and The Bay Citizen.

The L.A. Times reported last week that only 4 percent of children are considered obese in the wealthy, largely white area of Manhattan Beach, compared wth 36 percent of students considered obese in the low-income, largely Latino Bell Gardens.

"They are like two different worlds," said Paul Simon, the director of chronic-disease prevention for the Los Angeles County health department, to the paper.

Statewide, the percentage of overweight and obese children dropped 1.1 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to a study from November from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. Still, 38 percent of children in California are overweight or obese.

The Times has a great infographic that allows you to see childhood-obesity rates in the state, county-by-county, so you can examine the correlation between income areas and obesity rates.

Just know this: The CCPHA released a report in 2009 that suggested obesity and physical inactivity had cost the state $41 billion in 2006, nearly twice the amount from six years prior.

Fitness & Income Appear Linked, Too

The Bay Citizen recently conducted an analysis of state data to see how 5th graders perform on the statewide physical-fitness test, and discovered a similar correlation to the L.A. Times'.

"The schools that performed the best have few students from low-income families, for reasons that experts say are not surprising," the paper reports.

For example: 83 percent of students at Sycamore Valley Elementary passed all six components of the fitness test. The school doesn't have a single student eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Compare that with Cesar Chavez Elementary School, where none of the 5th graders received healthy scores on all six components of the fitness test. More than 25 percent of them "need[ed] improvement" on every part of the test. More than 85 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

What's at the root of the problem?

"There is an inequity problem with the availability of quality physical education between schools of varying socioeconomic status," said Drisha Leggitt, executive director of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, to the paper.

Statewide, 31 percent of students were deemed physically fit, based on findings from the latest statewide fitness test. It's important to note that students were not considered fit if they failed any one of the six components of the test.

Still, the fact that 83 percent of Sycamore students passed all six components while not a single Cesar Chavez student did ... that should sound some alarms.

After all, it was just last week that the American Academy of Pediatrics stressed low-income students' need for playtime.

Couple that with the systematic review published earlier this week that found "strong evidence" of a link between physical activity and academic performance, and one might begin to wonder: Could schools tap physical education as a turnaround resource?

Given the rates of obesity and fitness levels of students in low-income California schools, there's certainly room to try it out.

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