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Can Governors' Fitness Councils campaign combat childhood obesity in Conn.?

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In an effort to combat childhood obesity in Connecticut youth, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced on Thursday, March 13, that the National Foundation for Governors’ Fitness Councils (NFGFC) is bringing its physical fitness campaign to the state. It awards public and public charter elementary and middle school fitness centers—which include strength training and cardio fitness equipment and interactive fitness games—to nominated schools that are creating fresh and creative fitness and wellness programs for students.

“Our obligation is to ensure not only our youngsters’ academic fitness but also their physical fitness. This campaign will help some of our schools to strengthen their students’ physical health and wellness,” said State Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

Malloy said the NFGFC provides a great opportunity for the state’s elementary and middle schools to create novel programs for improving physical fitness and preventing childhood obesity.

“Childhood obesity is a problem that we must address, not just in Connecticut but across the country,” said Malloy in a statement.

In slightly more than a decade, U.S. rates of obesity have approximately tripled among preschoolers and adolescents, and quadrupled among children aged 6-11. Children are now susceptible to what used to be considered adult diseases, such as type-2 diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension, arthritis and other chronic conditions.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 19 states in the U.S. experienced a significant decrease in the prevalence of obesity in low-income preschoolers, aged 2 to 4, from 2008 to 2011. Connecticut, however, was one of 21 states that saw no improvement. In 2011, Connecticut was one of 10 states (including Massachusetts and Rhode Island) in the country where 15 or more percent of its preschool population was classified as obese.

A 2010-2011 study, by the Connecticut Department of Public Health (CT DPH), of 39,844 kindergarteners and 41,848 third graders, revealed that almost 31 percent of kindergarten students and 3rd grade are overweight or obese—16.1 percent are classified as obese. Blacks and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese than their white classmates, most attributed to poverty level.

Unhealthy food choices and habits undoubtedly play a major role in the development of obesity, however the American Obesity Association also considers today’s youth the most inactive generation in history.

Without preventative measures, obese, sedentary children grow to become obese, sedentary teens. A 2011 Connecticut Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 14.1 percent of 1,965 high school students were overweight (based on BMI) and 12.5 percent were obese. While 47.1 percent said they were trying to lose weight, 30.5 percent of all studied teens sat in front of the computer for non-scholastic reasons for three or more hours per day on a typical school day; 27.1 percent watched television for three or more hours per day—almost 46 percent of black students watched this much TV daily.

While 11.5 percent failed to exercise an hour per day at all in the past week, a promising 49.5 percent of high school students had been physically active for at least an hour a day on five or more days of the past week. Twenty-six percent had on every day of the week. This highlights the importance of physical fitness intervention at a young age.

In May 2012, the University of Connecticut Center for Public Health and Health Policy did a child weight surveillance of Hartford preschool students. Of the 1,120 Hartford preschoolers measured, 17 percent were considered overweight and 20 percent were obese. These numbers are twice as high as the CDC targets for age- and gender-specific body mass index (BMI). The majority of overweight or obese children, or 73 percent, were ages 4-5.

Nearly three-quarters of children aged 2-5 in Hartford are enrolled in school- or center-based programs, like Head Start. These programs, therefore, play a critical role in the instruction and development of early children’s lifestyle choices. However, support and encouragement from home, health care providers, schools and other community environments must continue throughout youth to have long-lasting impact.

In 2011, the CT DPH received a grant from the CDC to fund 11 YMCAs physical activity programming partnerships across the state, mainly serving lower income youth for a year. These YMCAs teamed up with at least one local school to implement physical activity programming, from wii Games to Zumba and basketball to yoga. In Hartford County, Hartford - YMCA of Greater Hartford partnered with 10th-12th graders at Hartford Public High’s nursing academy.

A May 2012 evaluation of the YMCA-school partnership program implementing physical activity found several factors that lead to the most successful, sustainable obesity prevention programs. Programs that were clearly planned, flexible and receptive to youth and community feedback on programming, with skilled and effective staff that had strong community partnerships and used additional funding sources had longer-term student commitment and health benefits.

For NFGFC grants, leading experts in medicine, exercise science and education evaluate nominated schools, scoring them on economic need, community outreach and creativity in offerings.

The NFGFC program, financed through public/private sector partnerships, has awarded 11 Lively Positively Fitness Centers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. in 2012. Three schools each in New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia and Georgia were awarded centers in 2013. This year, in addition to Connecticut, the NFGFC is looking to add Virginia, New Mexico and California to its mission to put fitness centers in every state in the country. Through NFGCF grants, the program’s mission is to develop the fittest, healthiest kids in the world.

“Our National Champion Schools campaign has been well received all around the country and I’m looking forward to working with Governor Malloy to make this campaign a great success in Connecticut,” fitness icon Jake Steinfeld, chair of the NFGFC said in a statement.

“I’ve always said that academics and fitness go hand in hand and by giving schools the tools, we can build strong bodies and minds while boosting confidence, self-esteem and focus in the classroom,” said Steinfeld. “By placing fitness centers in elementary and middle schools, we are certain to see positive, healthy changes.”

Nominations for Connecticut elementary and middle schools will be accepted until Monday, June 2. Three Alliance District schools, selected by the National Foundation, will earn the designation National Champion Schools. Each will receive an award of a $100,000 state-of-the-art Live PositivelyTM Fitness Center.

“While only three schools will win a new fitness center, all participating schools will set our children on the right path to fitness – and that’s a win for everyone,” said Malloy.

To nominate a school and learn more about NFGFC, visit www.natgovfit.org.

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