Schools should become a major focal point for preventing the spread of obesity in the United States, suggests a new report issued today by the Institute of Medicine.
With one-third of children now considered overweight or obese (as of last summer), the institute predicts that the health care costs associated with obesity could become "catastrophic" in future years.
Since children and teens spend an abundance of their waking hours in school or on school grounds, the report suggests that this "puts schools in a unique position to support students in getting optimum physical activity, eating healthily, and achieving and maintaining a healthy weight."
The institute suggests that all students should have opportunities to get 60 minutes of physical activity on a daily basis while at school, which aligns with the physical activity recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Outside of traditional physical education classes, the report suggests giving students in-class physical activity breaks, ensuring recesses remain high-activity, and creating safe pathways for students to walk to school.
Currently, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education, according to the report.
Beyond the physical-activity-in-school suggestion, the institute also recommends that schools leave their playground equipment open and accessible to students outside of school hours, and that K-12 students receive at least 20 hours of lessons about food and nutrition each school year. On average, students only receive about 4-6 hours of nutrition education as of now, according to the report.
"Individuals and groups can't solve this complex problem alone, and that's why we recommend changes that can work together at the societal level and reinforce one another's impact to speed our progress," said Dan Glickman, the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, in a statement.
The institute notes in the report that physically active, well-nourished students tend to perform better academically in school—something that's been suggested by a growing body of research.
Perhaps even more critically, the lessons learned in school at a young age tend to carry into adulthood, according to research. If schools can teach students about the importance of physical fitness and nutrition, the institute surmises that those lessons will stick with the students as they grow older, leading to healthy lifestyle choices for years down the road.
Beyond tapping school environments as a major focal point for obesity prevention, the institute suggests integrating physical activity into the lives of all Americans on a daily basis, making healthy food and beverages more available to all Americans, and developing a social-marketing program that promotes the importance of physical activity and solid nutrition.
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