Nov. 16, 2009
Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
America is facing a health crisis among its youth - a preventable crisis which could portend futures of diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and heart problems.
Over the past 20 years, the rate of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled, from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006. But solely addressing junk food or lack of exercise alone won't do the job in combating this problem.
Policies on multiple fronts are needed. That's where the Policy Leadership for Active Youth (PLAY) and Rodney Lyn, assistant professor of public health, come in.
Headquartered at Georgia State, the multi-institution initiative is aimed at examining positive policies to address obesity across schools, communities and health settings - from serving nutritious foods, to providing opportunities for more physical activity, looking at what's working to combat the problem.
"We really have a crisis on our hands if we think about the health burdens, and the economic burdens, that this will place on the healthcare system down the road," Lyn said. "It's a big, complex problem, and there's no one silver-bullet solution here."
The first location of the battle starts at home. Parents must be equipped with knowledge - knowledge about nutritious foods, decreasing the amount of time in front of the TV or video game console, and how allow for structured physical activities or family walks can play a part, Lyn said.
Another prong of the fight takes leaders to where children spend much of their waking hours - at schools. Schools which have seen physical education cut due to high-stakes testing, and vending machines that dish out junk foods. Policy changes are needed.
Bringing P.E. back is a start. School leaders can also open up the gyms and other facilities after school so kids can play, Lyn said. Fundraising efforts could axe the selling of candy. Finally, schools can change the items in the vending machines, or ditch them entirely.
At the community level, environment plays a huge role. The majority of suburban spaces aren't designed with walking in mind.
"The way that neighborhoods have been developed over the decades has provided fewer sidewalks, giving less connectedness between schools and communities," Lyn said. "We're building schools across major highways and other places where it's not easy to walk to school?"
Also, neighborhoods with violent crime give less incentive for physical activity.
"Kids will be less inclined to play outside if kids don't have a safe place to do it," he said.
Lyn has also completed an evaluation of school districts in Georgia to analyze government-mandated school wellness policies, evaluating their strengths and weakenesses in creating a healthy environment for children.
The efforts to combat childhood obesity must be sustained, and all of the players - from parents and schools to government agencies and non-profit organizations - must be involved.
"If you think about how long it took us to get where we are, we're not going to reverse this overnight," he said.