Tuesday, July 1, 2008


A healthy lifestyle as second nature

Nine million kids are overweight, including 28% of NY high school students; the cost to society is too high

Parents and educators are rightly concerned that children get a solid grounding in language and mathematics. These skills will be useful and important in later life.

But what about ensuring that later life is long and healthy?

An estimated 9 million children in the United States are overweight or obese. In New York, state figures show more than 28 percent of high school students in that category.

It is time to start putting the same emphasis on health that we put on math. Grade it. Make schools comply with the same rigorous standards.

The costs to society of excess body weight are staggering. For example:

Type 2 diabetes is a growing disease among children, whereas a few decades ago it was virtually unknown among our youngest citizens.

From 1979 to 1999, according to the Institute of Medicine, obesity-associated hospital costs for children and youth increased by 262 percent, to $127 million.

Studies show overweight children are likely to become overweight adults, whose direct and indirect health care costs have climbed to $117 billion, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Much of our taxes support federal and state-supported insurance programs that pay for the chronic diseases caused by being overweight or obese.

Schools are the natural place to start to correct this. A recent study found that schools that implemented a nutrition program reduced the number of overweight children by half.

Requiring daily physical education classes - the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only 3.8 percent of elementary schools have daily physical education - will increase children's activity, which will lead to better health.

Although regular physical education classes are required in New York State, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer found schools widely ignore the rule. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 70 percent of high school students in New York do not meet recommended physical activity levels.

New York State is considering setting nutrition standards for children in school. Now, only 7 percent of New York schools meet national recommended dietary guidelines, according to the State Education Department.

Setting and enforcing nutrition and fitness standards are good first steps. But a more effective approach would be to combine health education, including nutrition, education and evaluation, in one package.

Make school lunch programs reflect national nutritional guidelines: Don't offer soda; provide skim- or low-fat milk; offer more fruits and vegetables. Continue to teach nutrition and good lifestyle behaviors in all classrooms, not just health, and use the physical education program to boost activity and measure fitness. Provide activities before, during and after school that encourage healthy, active lifestyles.

This is the basic model of wellness programs now found in many companies. The hope is that by creating healthier employees, the cost of health insurance will stabilize.

An overweight employee or an employee who smokes is at risk for many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and various forms of cancer. The medical costs to treat one smoker with a chronic illness like emphysema could bankrupt a small company.

It can be very difficult to change unhealthy habits in an adult. It is much easier to change these habits in children.

It is important to start young. Too often, education in health and health care is deferred until late in middle school or even high school, when many kids have already established bad habits they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

They become devotees of the fast-food business, lured as children with promotional toys to acclimate them to too-sweet, too-fatty food. Education in nutrition and exercise has to begin just as early.

A healthy lifestyle should be second nature, like brushing your teeth. Making it as important academically as it is in reality will require dedicated time and classrooms, and expert teachers. It will require planning on how to get and stay healthy and how to use health care effectively.

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