Gov. Nathan Deal announced a major statewide initiative Wednesday to address the problem of obesity, calling it “one of the greatest challenges we face.’’...

Gov. Nathan Deal announced a major statewide initiative Wednesday to address the problem of obesity, calling it “one of the greatest challenges we face.’’

The obesity program would combine efforts of state agencies, businesses, health care organizations, the philanthropic community, and Atlanta professional sports teams, Deal said.

The initiative’s goals include promoting more physical activity and improved nutrition in schools, along with wellness policies in child care programs.

Two-thirds of Georgians are either overweight or obese, Deal noted, a statistic that mirrors national data. But when it comes to childhood obesity, the state has a rate that’s higher than average, with one in every five Georgia children being obese.

Deal was joined at a news conference at the state Capitol by first lady Sandra Deal; Public Health Commissioner Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald; executives from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and Coca-Cola; state legislators; and former Falcons linebacker Coy Wire.

The initiative represents the next step in the state’s SHAPE program in schools, which currently features a fitness assessment of students, measuring their strength, flexibility and endurance.

SHAPE now features a new website,, which lists cooking, exercise and nutrition information and has a directory where people can identify fitness programs such as YMCAs and farmers markets by ZIP code.

Deal said the obesity program would also involve state parks and emphasize locally grown food, through the state Department of Agriculture.

A goal, he said, is for Georgia to become known as “the state that moves.’’

Georgia’s obesity costs are estimated at $2.4 billion per year.

Fitzgerald said one tactic is for Public Health to encourage breastfeeding, which helps protect against obesity.

A big focus in the obesity fight is in schools. Fitzgerald, in a subsequent interview with GHN, said Public Health has presented the case to the state Board of Education that physical activity helps improve test scores.

She said a goal is to see “30 minutes of movement, every child and every day.’’ Fitzgerald cited Sope Creek Elementary School in Cobb County, where cardio routines are done in the morning before academic work begins. Here’s a recent GHN article about the school’s activities.

“We think it’s doable,’’ Fitzgerald said. “It’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of intent and determination.’’

Marsha Davis of the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health told GHN there is “some evidence that shows that physical activity during the day increases academic performance. Health issues and self-esteem issues are going to affect academic performance.’’

Linda Matzigkeit, chief administrative officer for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, told the news conference that the health system sees many children with obesity-related diseases such as hypertension, liver and kidney disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Children’s Healthcare is working with medical providers on how to tackle the obesity problem, she said.

Wire, the former Falcon, said children need to see fitness as fun. “We have to change kids’ minds,’’ he said.

To help broaden participation in physical activity, the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation is donating free sports equipment.

The obesity initiative drew praise from members of the medical community.

Dr. Evelyn Johnson, head of an obesity task force for the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told GHN that she was excited to see Deal take on the problem.

Johnson, a Brunswick pediatrician, says she is eager to see better nutrition and more exercise implemented in the schools.

She said she has seen the weight problem increase in her years of practice.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see a child who is overweight or obese,’’ Johnson said.

Here’s a recent GHN article on “The Weight of the Nation,’’ an HBO documentary series on obesity.

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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