“Georgia has the number-two highest incidence of childhood obesity in the nation,” state Commissioner of Health Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald said at a noon Carrollton Rotary Club meeting. “Only Mississippi is ahead of us and they’ve made some progress.”
Fitzgerald said that if there can be some impact on child obesity now, it could prevent much of the adult obesity problems in the future. She said analysis of hospital data for the past five years, showed that childhood obesity has gone up 338 percent and it has become the number one health initiative in Georgia government.
She said Gov. Nathan Deal realized it was a major problem and the Legislature passed the SHAPE initiative in 2009. A pilot testing program was started in five counties to determine the extent of the problem.
“The data showed that 43 percent of children have an unhealthy weight,” she said. “For fifth graders, it’s 48 percent.”
Fitzgerald said only 16 percent of the children were able to pass all five portions of the physical fitness test and 20 percent didn’t pass a single part.
“After looking at what other states are doing, we came to the conclusion that this has to be a statewide effort, public and private,” she said, “so we could bring together a lot of people doing different things.”
All state agencies are involved, including the departments of Public Health, Education, Agriculture and Early Childhood Learning. She said business partners have come on board, including the Blank Foundation, the Falcons Foundation, Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Coca-Cola. Academic partners include the College of Medicine in Augusta, University of Georgia and Georgia State University,
The state has created a SHAPE website, www.georgiashape.org, where people can see what other schools and communities are doing and what resources are available.
“You just type in your ZIP code and it will show you, for example, where farmers markets are and where 5K races are being held,” Fitzgerald said.
It will also help people who have ideas for new programs find sponsors or grants to fund them.
“The Blank Foundation told us they wanted to do salad bars at schools and they got 10 applications,” she said.
The Georgia Hospital Association has partnered with the state in a program that encourages breast feeding of babies.
“An interesting thing about breast feeding is that children who get natural mama’s milk are not as obese,” she said. “That continues long afterwards and we don’t know exactly why. I simply think it’s that God is smarter than we are.”
Seventeen hospitals in the state, including Tanner, are now participating in the program.
“So we’re starting with day one, working with children,” she said.
Fitzgerald said another program by the Department of Early Childhood Education is making sure that child care facilities meet certain standards for activities and nutrition.
She said research shows there’s a strong correlation between physical and mental activity.
“There’s actual increase in neuron development in the brain, so that kids who are physically active are better able to learn,” she said.
Fitzgerald cited one program in a Cobb County school that has been successful in getting students to do more physical activity and has raised standardized test scores. She said the program makes sure that every student has at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
“It begins when the children leave the school bus in the morning,” she said. “A P.E. (physical education) teacher is in the gym and the kids go immediately there for supervised physical activity.”
After the bells rings and students go to homeroom, instead of having 30 minutes of announcements, they go to a Zumba class. Fitzgerald said physical activities are worked into classes whenever possible, such as incorporating marching into math classes.
If a teacher finds a class is becoming unruly, she sends them on a run around the track. After two days of track running, a P.E. teacher takes over the class and gives the teacher a training period break.
Fitzgerald said that children who are having problems with childhood obesity will probably grow up to be unhealthy adults.
“If you look at Type 1 diabetes, it only occurs in about one in every 400 to 600 children,” she said. “By the time people get to age 50, about half are either diabetic or pre-diabetic. That means there’s things we’re doing wrong with our lives. We’re not moving enough. We’re not eating smartly enough and we’re doing detrimental things.”
Fitzgerald called on community leaders to be good role models for children and to spread the word on fighting obesity.
She said her goal is, “Thirty minutes of physical activity, every day, at every school, for every child in Georgia.”