The secret weapon to ending America’s health crisis is schools

Kenneth Thorpe

Special to Valley News

America has a big, fat problem. A whopping 13 million American children are obese, and millions more are about to join their ranks. By 2025, according to a report in Pediatric Obesity, the nation will house 17 million obese kids.

This information is alarming. Obesity can lead to a slew of dangerous health complications, like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. It imposes immense costs on the nation’s health care system.

To save lives and trim budgets, parents and policymakers alike need to make sure kids learn about health habits early.

Not surprisingly, the biggest culprit in childhood obesity is diet. Only eight in 100 children eat the recommended amount of fruit and fewer than two in 100 eat enough vegetables.

Young Americans wolf down a lot of junk food, though. One in three kids eats fast food every single day.  One in four high school students drinks soda daily.

Also, kids aren’t getting enough physical activity. Right now, less than half of young Americans get the hour of daily exercise recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Insufficient exercise coupled with poor food choices is a recipe for disaster. The overwhelming majority of obese children, as many as 80 percent, doesn’t shed weight as adults, and are destined for a lifetime of obesity.

That’s devastating for health, obviously, but also for our health care system. Obesity costs the United States $210 billion each year.  Many chronic diseases stem from obesity, and chronic disease is expected to cost the nation $42 trillion between now and 2030. Chronic disease is the top driver of rising health care costs.

Schools are uniquely situated to get kids into shape. Children spend most of their day at school, and typically have at least one meal there. So teachers and administrators could provide students with the resources to stay healthy. But most haven’t.

Only four in 10 high schools, and just two in 10 middle schools, require students to learn about nutrition. Physical education is vanishing too. More than 20 percent of schools have removed physical education requirements, and fewer than one in 10 offer daily gym classes.

Prioritizing better nutrition and providing more opportunities for exercise could dramatically improve America’s health and help trim the nation’s health care costs.

One study found that adding an hour of gym class for students in kindergarten through fifth graded reduced Body Mass Index by half a point, on average.

Some schools are embracing creative ways to keep students healthy.

At Pulsaki Elementary School in Delaware, for instance, each student receives a fruit or vegetable to eat during snack time. They also can participate in a walking club and receive fun tokens to decorate their backpacks based on the number of minutes they’ve walked.

First lady Michelle Obama also has inspired schools to help kids eat better and exercise more. Thanks to a national initiative called Let’s Move! many schools now work with local chefs to ensure that meals are healthy and tasty.  Also, more than 20,000 schools have committed to integrating 60 minutes of physical activity into their student’s daily schedule.

Implementing and participating in initiatives like these can help students get healthy and stay healthy throughout their lives. That will help these children and save our health care system.

Kenneth Thorpe is professor of health policy at Emory University and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.

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