Making A Stand Against Childhood Obesity

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You’ve seen it discussed on the news, on talk shows and in documentaries.  You’ve seen British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launch a reality show to combat it, and you may even have heard first lady, Michelle Obama, call it “an epidemic… a public health crisis that is threatening our children, our families and, more importantly, the future of our nation.”

There’s no doubt about it, childhood obesity has become a red hot topic.  And if you look at the stats, you can see why.  Recent studies show that the percentage of overweight children between the ages of 6 and 11 has more than doubled from 7 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 2002.

In view of this, the Center for Disease Control in the USA recently predicted that this generation of children may be the first in our nation’s history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Why doctors and scientists are concerned about obesity
During the past two decades, as high calorie, processed fast foods have infiltrated our diets, and addictive video games and computer screens have become more enticing than shooting hoops or playing bball in the back yard, the number of excessively overweight children and teenagers in the United States and other countries in the western world has risen dramatically.

Most obese children are also at a much higher risk for weight-related health issues in adulthood.  In addition, childhood obesity is associated with a number of health and sociological problems that can pervade into adulthood, including:

Physical health problem

  1. Heart disease caused by high cholesterol and high blood pressure
  2. Type 2 diabetes
  3. Asthma
  4. Sleep apnea

Sociological problems

  1. Often the early target of bullying and early social discrimination
  2. Low self esteem
  3. Poor academic performance
  4. Social functioning issues

The solution starts with a vision
Amid a plethora of depressing statistics, there is hope for the future.  As much of the western world gets fatter by the day, one region in Florida’s state capital is bucking the trend and leading the fight against childhood obesity.  Quietly and confidently, without any media sensationalism or public fanfare, children in Leon County schools and other districts in the Big Bend Area are becoming fitter, stronger, and healthier.

What’s the secret?  A pioneering corporate vision and a ground-breaking exercise program designed specifically to help school children from grades K through eight get moving and to physically develop their body in a fun, engaging and non-competitive atmosphere.

Five years ago, Capital Health Plan, one of the nation’s leading HMOs, was looking to launch a program that would positively impact the health and wellness of the local community.  It would have been easy for Capital Health Plan to sponsor a triathlon, a marathon or some mass-participation outdoor event.  Instead, the company wanted to build a program with longevity and real, tangible benefits that would lead to systematic change.

Inspired by the community-based initiatives of health care giant Kaiser Permanente, which include providing affordable health care for low income families, healthy eating, and park improvement and renovation programs, Capital Health Plan partnered with Titus Sports, Leon County Schools, and the World Class Schools of the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce to launch the CHP Champions Program.

Children exercise together, enjoy collaborative success
The free program, offered before and after school and during scheduled PE classes, is designed not just to improve a child’s fitness and normalize their body mass index (BMI), but to encourage healthy lifestyle habits and an intrinsic desire for staying fit and exercising throughout their lives.  Children of all skill levels and body types have the opportunity to exercise and achieve success together while also focusing on individual improvement within a structured environment, thereby improving their social and collaborative skills as well as their self efficacy and confidence.

The initial pilot program was tested at Gilchrist Elementary School in Leon County in the winter of 2005 and spring 2006, where 183 students voluntarily enrolled for the program, with 154 completing it.  In assessments designed to measure improvement in gross motor skills, a majority of students improved across all categories, with 100 percent of the participating students improving their speed (40 YD dash), strength (Broad Jump), agility (Pro Agility) and endurance (300 YD shuttle).

After receipt of a five-year grant from Capital Health Plan, the program has now reached more than 20,000 children at 54 schools in four counties throughout north Florida, Leon, Jefferson, Gadsden, and Wakulla.

The word is spreading – fast!
Building on the success achieved in Florida, Champions is gradually making inroads to other parts of the country.  At the Police Athletic League (PAL) in New Castle, Delaware, for example, 120 students per semester from four Colonial School District elementary schools enrolled in the free Champions program at the Garfield Park PAL at the end of last year.

Jimmy Riggs, executive director of the PAL of Delaware, saw Titus coaches training local athletes at the nearby Hockessin PAL and wanted to bring a similar program to Garfield Park, which serves a low income demographic.  ”I wanted to make the program available to 3rd, 4th and 5th grade children in this community who could really benefit from something like this,” Riggs says.  ”I think we can make a positive impact in their lives and in their ability to make healthy and successful lifestyle choices.”

Impressed by the current success of the Champions program, the Colonial Educational Foundation – an organization of local businesses and leaders – agreed to fund the program at Garfield Park for the current school year.  Children had to apply for the program and commitment was a key prerequisite for participation.

At Garfield Park, the children rotate from one activity to another and also participate in regular sports such as basketball and flag football.  While half of the children do Champions for 45 minutes, the others do homework and eat a hot meal provided by The Food Bank of Delaware.  Also included in the program are lessons on health and nutrition.

“For some of the kids in this area, this might be the only meal they get when they com here, it might be the only activity they get.  This is going to be a change in these kids’ lifestyles.  It’s going to give them the ability to reach for something a little bit more.”  Riggs says.

Champions Program Feedback
From the kids…
“I love the Champions program.  The workouts and drills are sometimes hard but in the end they are all fun.  Even my elementary school cousins can’t wait to come home so I can show them what I learned from Champions.  Every day I come home on the bus.  Then I show them what I learned and once they have it down pat we go outside in my backyard and we do drills for hours.  They have a lot of fun and so do I.  Thank you for picking our school to come to.  It helps a lot and I feel great.”
Drew Hostetter – Riversprings Middle School

From the parents…
“My son seems to really enjoy the CHP Champions program and the coaches.  Since he is the competitive type, he loves to come home and tell us how well he did in the different activities.  The Champions program really grabs the attention of the students, since individuals outside of the school come in and work with them.  Overall, I think my son has really enjoyed and benefited from the program, and I would love to see my other two children participate in the program when they reach school age.”
Lori Lawhon – son attends Medart Elementary School

From the school…
“Our school is experiencing better attendance because students do not want to miss a day of Champions.”
Allysun Davis – Principal, St. Johns Elementary School

From Capital Health Plan…
“We’re on the right track.  We’ve got the resources mobilized and we’ve got great collaborative partners.  We think we’re going to achieve some really dramatic success in the years to come.”
John Hogan – CEO, Capital Health Plan

The Champions Program Structure
A typical daily routine involves the following activities:

  • Warm up rotation (body movement with active stretching)
  • Bodyweight rotation for posture development, local/general muscular endurance, and mobility
  • Implement rotation (hurdles, med balls, cones) to engage coordination and attention while still training the qualities of coordination, balance, and position strengthening
  • Sprint/agility drills rotation for coordination, improved running mechanics/speed, and general aerobic conditioning
  • End with obstacle courses and relay races
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