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Published in Print: January 9, 2002, as Health Update

Health Update

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Experts Take Aim at Obesity Problem

With an estimated 61 percent of adults and 13 percent of children in this country identified as being overweight, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher has released a report that urges schools, communities, and employers to help combat the problem.

The report says that about 300,000 people in the United States die each year because of health problems caused by being overweight or obese.

"Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," Dr. Satcher said in a statement when the report was released last month.

According to federal statistics, the percentage of adolescents who are overweight has tripled since 1980. Now, 13 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds and 14 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds are considered overweight, based on a formula that considers age, weight, and height.

Those trends prompted Dr. Satcher to offer a number of recommendations aimed specifically at schools:

  • Require physical education for all grades. Only one in four teenagers takes part in some form of school-based physical education, and only one state requires gym classes in all K-12 grades.
  • Follow U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines that prohibit serving foods of minimal nutritional value during mealtimes in school food-service areas. That prohibition would include the food that is offered in vending machines.
  • Offer foods low in fat and calories—including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products—on campus and at all school events.

Race and Weight: The percentage of seriously overweight black and Hispanic children more than doubled over a 12-year period, while the percentage increased 50 percent among white youngsters over the same period, according to another recent study.

As of 1998, about 22 percent of blacks and Hispanics ages 4 to 12 were overweight, as well as 12 percent of white children in the same age group, according to research based on an analysis of national youth data collected from 1986 to 1998.

Even when family income and other factors were considered, the analysis found that the racial and ethnic gap in obesity was still significant, according to the authors, Dr. Richard S. Strauss of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey- Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick, N.J., and Dr. Harold A. Pollack of the University of Michigan's school of public health in Ann Arbor.

By comparison, the increase in overweight white children "appears modest when compared to the triple-digit percentage increase in overweight minority children," the researchers write in an article published in the December issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Digital Exercise: Some fitness experts are hoping adolescents' affinity for computers will help them slim down and get in shape.

The National School Fitness Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in American Fork, Utah, has donated fitness centers and physical education curricula to more than 50 schools across the country. To put a 21st-century twist on its efforts, the group unveiled a computerized kiosk last month, designed by IBM, to help students determine their fitness needs.

To use the kiosks, students place their palms on an electrical device that yields readings on their ratios of body fat to lean muscle. The kiosks also conduct measurements of such factors as height, weight, and hydration level.

Foundation officials say the kiosks will soon use technology that is capable of recognizing individual students and customizing exercise plans according to each person's fitness level. The technology will also be able to compile group statistics to determine the fitness levels of entire school populations.

The first kiosks will be installed early this year, according to a spokeswoman for the group, and will regularly assess 10,000 students in a dozen schools. Within a year, the foundation plans to include another 150 districts and 150,000 students in the program.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 21, Issue 16, Page 13

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