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Foundation Commits $500 Million to Childhood-Obesity Prevention

Childhood-obesity-prevention efforts received a major breath of life on Thursday, as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced a $500 million commitment over the next decade toward ensuring all children can grow up at a healthy weight.

The foundation, which made a similar $500 million commitment in 2007, plans on paying specific attention to underserved, higher-risk populations, along with a focus on early-childhood prevention strategies. Based on past research, it highlighted five specific priorities over the next decade:

  • Ensuring all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight.
  • Eliminating sugar-sweetened-beverage consumption among children between the ages of 0 and 5.
  • Making a healthy school environment "the norm and not the exception" across the nation.
  • Infusing physical activity into the daily routines of children.
  • Making healthy foods and beverages "the affordable, available, and desired choice in all neighborhoods and communities."

In terms of sugar-sweetened beverages, a 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health found youths to be nearly twice as likely to buy non-sugar-sweetened drinks after they learned that sugary beverages contained roughly 10 percent of their daily expected calories, or that it would require 50 minutes of physical activity to burn off those calories. Presenting any calorie information to the youths in the study reduced the odds of them purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages by roughly 40 percent.

Research also supports the goal regarding healthy foods and beverages. A 2012 study from the journal Pediatrics found students who lived in states with laws that limit high-calorie food and drinks in school had smaller increases in body mass index than students in states with weaker or no such laws. The findings caused the authors to conclude, "competitive food laws may improve adolescent weight status."

The incorporation of daily physical activity into children's routines has long been a federal recommendation—children are supposed to engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, suggest the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans—but only roughly half of youths reach that level, according to a 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine. A study from that same year in JAMA Pediatrics found youths' daily MVPA tended to decrease with age, which the IOM echoed in its report. Meanwhile, a 2013 study from the Journal of Health Economics found an increase in the amount of physical education time for 5th graders appeared to reduce the likelihood of childhood obesity.

Well and Good

According to a 2012 research letter published in JAMA, childhood obesity among preschoolers from low-income families appears to have decreased slightly in recent years, which is an undeniably positive trend. Previous research suggested children in low-income families experience higher rates of childhood obesity, and once children become obese, it's more difficult for them to lose weight. If the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's latest commitment can help ensure all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight, it could be a major boon to childhood-obesity prevention efforts.

"By 2025, we want to ensure that children in America grow up at a healthy weight, no matter who they are or where they live," said the foundation's president and CEO Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, in a statement. "We have made substantial progress, but there is far more to do and we can't stop now."

In recent years, there have been signs of progress in terms of preventing childhood obesity. According to a 2012 report published in JAMA, the obesity rate in New York City's K-8 public school system decreased 5.5 percent since the 2006-07 school year. Similarly, childhood obesity dropped 4.5 percent among all Philadelphia students between the 2006-07 and 2009-10 school years, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. In general, childhood-obesity rates in the U.S. more or less stabilized over the past decade, found a 2013 report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. However, childhood-obesity rates across the world increased 47.1 percent from 1980 to 2013, per a 2014 study published in The Lancet, suggesting much work remains to offset the damage done over the past three decades.

In a blog post, former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who now sits on the foundation's board of trustees, explained how childhood-obesity prevention must be a focus across all sectors to be truly successful:

How did we begin to alter a movement that once seemed impossible to stop? I like to think of it as a good old-fashioned American mix of families, educators, policy makers and businesses pulling together to bring about change. Parents are getting out and doing things with their kids—hiking, jogging, cycling, swimming, throwing a ball or Frisbee around—and both parents and kids find themselves feeling better. Schools are offering healthy lunch choices, and making good food, including breakfast, available for students who might otherwise be able to afford only junk food, or no food at all. Cities and states are requiring fast-food outlets to post nutrition information. Large retail chains are building fresh-food grocery stores that represent oases of healthy nutrition in 'food deserts.' Hospitals and clinics are emphasizing preventive care programs. Foundations such as RWJF, with its efforts to build a Culture of Health, are promoting innovative pilot programs and partnerships. All these efforts, taken together, are truly making a difference.

In other words: Schools aren't alone in combating childhood obesity. Nor are parents, policymakers, local bureaucracies or students themselves. Without a collective effort, turning the tide against childhood obesity becomes that much more difficult.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's $500 million commitment could go a long way toward improving the synergy between those sectors, however.

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