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Childhood Obesity in Mississippi 'Significantly' Declining, Report Finds

The combined prevalence of overweight and obesity in Mississippi public elementary school students significantly declined between 2005 and 2011, according to a new report from the Center for Mississippi Health Policy.

The report, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Bower Foundation, sought to evaluate the impact of the 2007 Mississippi Healthy Students Act on childhood obesity. According to data from the 2011 Child and Youth Prevalence of Obesity Study (CAYPOS), the prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity in the state dropped from 43 percent in 2005 to 37.3 percent in 2011, a 13.3 percent decrease that was dubbed statistically significant.

"Beginning in 2009, we knew something was happening, but there really wasn't anything that was statistically significant, which means it could have been chance, or fluctuations up and down," said Theresa Hanna, executive director of the Mississippi center, to The Sun Herald. "Only when we got the 2011 data did we find a statistically significant drop in the elementary students that really caught everyone's attention."

The percentage of children in all grades K-12 classified as either overweight or obese also decreased from 43.9 percent in 2005 to 40.9 percent in 2011, but this drop was not seen as statistically significant.

Racial disparities appear to remain, however. The prevalence of overweight and obesity was significantly lower in white students than African-American students among all three grade levels, according to the 2011 CAYPOS data. The combined overweight/obesity rates for white students dropped from 40.6 percent in 2005 to 34.8 percent in 2011, which was seen as statistically significant.

It appears that changes in the home environment aren't major factors in the reduction of childhood obesity, according to surveys of parents of public school students. While parents reported that they intended to improve nutrition and physical activity at home, they reported few improvements when asked specific questions about how they were doing so.

Well and Good

Many of the parents surveyed also failed to recognize when their children were overweight or obese. Only 15 percent of parents labeled their child as such, despite the CAYPOS data finding 41 percent to be either overweight or obese. When parents were asked for their children's height and weight to calculate their child's BMI, researchers found that 39 percent of children would be considered either overweight or obese.

Nearly 90 percent of parents thought that the role of the school in preventing childhood obesity is either "very important" or "somewhat important," according to surveys. However, that marks a slight decline from 2009 (the first year that the center began tracking this), when 94 percent of parents responded affirmatively about schools' roles in preventing childhood obesity.

The state's Healthy Students Act requires 150 minutes of physical education a week for elementary and middle school students and one-half Carnegie unit—approximately one semester—in high school. In 2010, 86.5 percent of surveyed public school principals reported full implementation of the minimum requirements for physical education, up from 79.1 percent in 2008. Just under one-third (31.6 percent) of principals said that students in their schools spend at least 180 minutes per week in physical education, up from 27.1 percent in 2008.

However, the report also uncovered a few red flags in terms of physical education. The percentage of schools providing physical education to at least 75 percent of students dropped from 84 percent (in 2008) to 77 percent of schools (in 2011).

A similar drop in the intensity of physical education was likewise discovered. While 73.8 percent of principals in 2008 said their students spent at least 75 percent of physical education time being physically active, only 61.6 percent of principals in 2011 reported the same.

The Healthy Students Act has been in effect since the 2007-08 school year, but only 16 percent of district superintendents reported that their district had fully implemented all components of the law. Budget restraints & cutbacks were often mentioned by school leaders as hurdles.

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