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January 28, 2010 Published in 2010 In Review, Health & Fitness

Michelle Obama Launches National Childhood Obesity Initiative In Alexandria

Staff Report

First Lady Michelle Obama greets Virginia Congressman Jim Moran while Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille looks on. (Photo: Liz Roll)

According to a 2007 Inova Health Systems study, 42.5% of Alexandria’s children are overweight or are in danger of becoming overweight; 70 percent do not eat enough fruit and vegetables; 30 percent do not get enough exercise and more than 50 percent spend four or more hours a day looking at a television or computer screen.

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin came to the Alexandria YMCA to launch a new childhood obesity initiative and release a Surgeon General report on the matter. The trio announced plans to help Americans lead healthier lives through better nutrition, regular physical activity and encouraging communities to support healthy choices.

“The surge in obesity in this country is nothing short of a public health crisis that is threatening our children, our families, and our future,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “In fact, the health consequences are so severe that medical experts have warned that our children could be on track to live shorter lives than their parents. The paper released today is an incredibly important step in directing the Nation’s attention to solving the obesity epidemic and we do not have a moment to waste.”

Benjamin highlighted the alarming trend of overweight and obese Americans, and asked them to join her in a grassroots effort.

Obesity more than doubled among adults and has tripled among children and adolescents between 1980 and 2004. Two-thirds of adults and nearly one-in-three children are overweight or obese. Increased food intake, a sedentary lifestyle and environments that make it difficult for people to make healthy choices but easy to consume extra calories, all contribute to the epidemic of overweight and obesity.

“Curbing the obesity epidemic requires committed people and organizations across the nation working together to take action,” said Sebelius. “Today, we outline a vision for the nation that requires parents, neighborhoods, the medical community, employers, schools and individuals to take a coordinated and comprehensive approach to combating overweight and obesity.”

Racial and ethnic groups and geographic regions of the United States are disproportionately affected. For instance, African American girls and Hispanic boys are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites. Among adults, American Indians and Alaskan natives have the highest rates of obesity. The impact of these numbers is reflected in the nation’s concurrent epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Researchers warn that if trends are not reversed, children will be afflicted with medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease in early adulthood.

“Americans will be more likely to change their behavior if they have a meaningful reward – something more than just reaching a certain weight or dress size,” said Benjamin. “The real reward is invigorating, energizing, joyous health. It is a level of health that allows people to embrace each day and live their lives to the fullest without disease or disability.”

The recommendations in The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation include:

Improving our communities – Neighborhoods and communities should become actively involved in creating healthier environments. The availability of supermarkets, outdoor recreational facilities and the limitation of advertisements of less healthy foods and beverages are all examples of ways to create a healthier living environment.

Healthy Choices and Healthy Home Environments – Change starts with the individual choices Americans make each day for themselves, their families and those around them. Reducing the consumption of sodas and juices with added sugars; eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; limiting television time; and being more physically active help us achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Creating Healthy Child Care Settings – It is estimated that more than 12 million children ages 0-6 receive some form of child care on a regular basis from someone other than their parents. Parents should talk with their childcare providers about changes to promote their children’s health.

Creating Healthy Schools – To help students develop life-long health habits, schools should provide appealing healthy food options including fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, water and low-fat beverages. School systems should also require nutrition standards and daily physical education for students.

Creating Healthy Work Sites – Employers can implement wellness programs that promote healthy eating in cafeterias, encourage physical activity through group classes and create incentives for employees to participate.

Mobilizing Medical Communities – Medical care providers must make it a priority to teach their patients about the importance of good health. Doctors and other health care providers are often the most trusted source of health information and are powerful role models for healthy lifestyle habits.

The First Lady praised Virginia Congressman Jim Moran’s (D-8th) proposed Healthy Kids Act. He introduced that legislation last November. At today’s event, he applauded the new federal initiative.

“We must make addressing childhood obesity a national priority,” Moran said. “This is not just about helping Americans today, it’s about protecting future generations. The obesity crisis cannot and will not be solved without the full support of the federal government.”

Local Efforts

The Alexandria Health Department, in collaboration with private organizations, has developed an action plan to combat childhood obesity. Last year, the City received a grant from the National Association of City and County Health Officials to implement the part of that plan that focuses on children between the ages of two and five. During the first year of the grant, the City received $15,000 and will receive an additional $25,000 this year.

Dr. Lisa Kaplowitz (Photo: Regan Kereilis)

“We are particularly concerned about these young children because 42.5% of children between the ages of two and five are obese,” said Dr. Lisa Kaplowitz, director of the Alexandria Health Department. “Hispanic and African American youngsters are at even greater risk of childhood obesity than their white counterparts. Our initial efforts are directed specifically at these children and at children who are 200% below the federal poverty level.

“The City and the State have applied for a stimulus grant that would provide millions of dollars to help us further implement our action plan on childhood obesity. We hope to hear about that funding sometime in February,” Kaplowitz said.