Nine years ago, Vanetta Keyes didn’t know what to do. Her teenage daughter was obese, and there were no local programs for overweight children and their families. Keyes knew her daughter’s situation could get worse.
On her own initiative, she began reaching out to other parents in similar situations, encouraging them to work out together with their children a few times a month.
Keyes eventually founded CHOICES for Kids, a grass-roots nonprofit organization in the metro Atlanta area dedicated to ending childhood obesity.
She says it can be difficult for parents to make overweight children understand the effects of weight on health, and how downright dangerous obesity can be.
“It’s not just you talking to your child,” Keyes says of her program. “Your child will sometimes be more apt to listen to someone who’s not their parent.”
One of those non-parental figures is Zoey, CHOICES’ new mascot, who danced with children on stage this summer during an expo and will soon begin making the rounds of elementary schools promoting healthy behavior.
Reducing the state’s obesity problem will take a strong commitment from government, community and families, experts say.
Georgia has the second-highest percentage of obese children, along with a rising percentage of obese adults. In July, the Trust for America’s Health annual report on obesity in America ranked Georgia the 17th most obese state in the country, jumping 17 spots from its No. 34 ranking 15 years ago.
But the state has several programs aiming at reducing obesity and increasing fitness in children. They include the Student Health and Physical Education (SHAPE) Act, signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2009.
Educating children about health
The SHAPE initiative measures the strength, flexibility and endurance of students, and aims to promote childhood fitness through goal-setting, tracking and recognition. Students will be placed in fitness categories based on results from initial physical assessments. Over the year, they will work on improving their fitness level, and receive a secondary assessment to measure their progress.
The SHAPE program is launching statewide this school year.
“We are currently training teachers in all of Georgia’s public school systems,” says Therese McGuire, health and physical education program specialist for the Georgia Department of Education.
Parents will receive the first fitness reports for their children in May 2012, and Gov. Nathan Deal will receive a report on the state’s progress in October 2012.
Other Georgia nonprofits and community-based programs are striving to increase fitness and reduce obesity.
Here are some examples:
** HealthMPowers is working with more than 100 Georgia schools in 26 school districts to improve health programming and policies to address obesity and other health issues facing young children today.
** Community Health Works, a nonprofit in Central Georgia, works with schools and other community organizations to promote nutrition and physical activity.
** Healthy Belvedere promotes healthy eating and active living in a community in southeast DeKalb County.
** Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is leading a statewide movement called Strong4Life to bring attention to the serious health risks threatening overweight and obese children.
In February 2010, first lady Michelle Obama started Let’s Move!, the national initiative dedicated to addressing childhood obesity. A year later, she celebrated its anniversary by speaking with students, parents and community leaders in Atlanta.
Keyes has aligned CHOICES with this initiative, hosting Let’s Move! Atlanta expos in DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb counties.
Encouraging healthy behavior must start at home, Keyes says. But just as there is an epidemic of overweight children, there is an epidemic of overweight adults, she notes.
Diane Bales, human development specialist with the Cooperative Extension at the University of Georgia, says, “Young children don’t get to make their own decisions about what to eat; they depend on adults to make those decisions.”
Learning from environment
Katrina Hill, a personal trainer in Columbus, adds, “Children learn from their environment and are influenced by what they see.’’ So discussions of healthy eating and consistent exercise often contradict what they are taught at home.
Themed summer camps can help play a role getting children into shape, such as the “We Can Summer Camp” held in Whitfield County, and St. Joseph/Candler’s summer camp, “ShapeDown,” held in Savannah.
Hill holds a summer training camp two or three days a week where children learn the importance of having a healthy and physically active lifestyle. Some of Hill’s biggest success stories have come with children whose parents participate in boot camp as well. To encourage participation on both ends, she offers discounted rate packages for child-and-parent attendees.
Bales says tackling childhood obesity must have a multi-part solution, one that addresses children, parents, teachers, child care providers and entire communities.
In 2006, Bales helped create “Eat Healthy, Be Active,” a curriculum unit for preschool teachers that teaches about nutrition and physical activity.
The Georgia School Nutrition Association (GSNA) has also begun emphasizing the importance of healthy lifestyles and eating habits in Georgia schools. GSNA is hosting a Let’s Move! kickoff rally this week at McNair High School in DeKalb.
There’s still much more work to be done.
Experts say making parks and playgrounds safer would persuade more children to use them. Building more sidewalks for bicycling, walking and running would give some people new opportunities for exercise. And more fresh-food markets are needed in some areas.
Keyes says even television programmers and advertisers could play a role, promoting nutritious foods.