September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and the Kane County Chronicle is presenting a three-day series on childhood obesity and its effects on our children. This is the third part of the series.
With the song "Eye of the Tiger" blaring in the background, Richmond Intermediate School student Melanie Chavez said she felt invigorated after running across the school's gym a few times.
"It helps me wake up before I have to start classes," Chavez said.
For approximately 30 minutes three days a week, Richmond third-, fourth- and fifth-graders run, jump rope and participate in other activities before school starts. The Precision Fitness program started in the spring of the 2011-12 school year.
"I want to give kids the opportunity to reach 60 minutes of physical activity a day," Richmond physical education teacher Gustavo Silva said. "We are trying to provide the opportunities and let them figure out what they like. There's no right or wrong way to be active. I have to instill in them that enjoyment of physical activity."
Silva’s is a way of thinking shared by many working to improve the health of American children: de-emphasize weight loss and instead focus on the daily decisions that affect a child's overall fitness. Replace the fried stuff with veggies. Limit time spent in front of the TV. When possible, be in motion.
These are necessary steps, experts say, if the country is to reverse the troubling childhood obesity epidemic. A child with excess body fat is considered overweight or obese. Doctors take several factors into consideration – including weight, age, height and gender – to determine whether a child fits one of those categories.
In 1980, U.S. children ages 6 to 11 and 12 to 19 held obesity rates of 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively. By 2010, obesity rates in both age groups had increased to 18 percent, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Locally, Kane County's 2011 Community Health Assessment indicates that 21.8 percent of children younger than 18 are considered obese.
Attempts to combat childhood obesity have varied and include everything from prevention programs to changing the familiar food group pyramid to the MyPlate icon, intended to remind people to eat healthy.
In August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a sign of potential progress: A study that showed from 2008-2011that there was a decrease in the nationwide obesity rate for preschool children from low-income families. Nineteen states/territories showed decreases, while 20 others – including Illinois – experienced no significant change. The rates rose in three states.
Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, called that report encouraging but said making healthy choices needs to continue.
"It's not time to stop," she said.
Community effort needed
Attention to, and action on, what kids are eating and how often they are moving needs to continue, Henry said. Parents can help younger children recognize when they are full so they can stop eating and encourage school-age children to spend time moving.
"They should balance screen time with movement time. It's 'On your feet vs. on your seat,'" she said. "If you spend more time on your seat, you have to increase your time on your feet."
Schools, Henry said, can make it a priority by making healthy behaviors a stated priority. She added that many do realize the link between academic success and healthy eating.
"Kids will remember better, read better, pay attention better, if they eat well," she said. "A hungry brain doesn't learn really well."
At Richmond, the exercise provided by the Precision Fitness program is in addition to the 30 minutes of physical education the students receive four times a week. The program has grown from 60 students the first year to 140 in the spring — nearly 40 percent of the school’s population.
"I'm pleased, but not surprised," Silva said. "I know what the kids want. My goal is that 100 percent of the kids will be involved."
The program has become part of Richmond student Melanie Williams' routine.
"I like that it motivates you to exercise more," Williams said.
This fall, the Precision Fitness Club added a program called the "100 Mile Club," where students walk or run during recess with a goal of reaching 100 miles by the end of the school year. The new club has more than 150 kids and is growing by an average of 10 students a day, Silva said.
Other local organizations also are working to make sure kids in Kane County stay active. The ProActive Kids Foundation this summer launched a new location at the St. Charles Park District's Pottawatomie Community Center to help tackle Kane County's childhood obesity issues.
The ProActive Kids program is open to children ages 8 to 14 who are considered overweight, along with their families. The eight-week sessions revolve around exercise, nutritional lessons and discussion.
Nicki Klinkhamer is executive director of ProActive Kids. Her husband, Tony Burke, founded the program in 2010, which is funded through Cadence Health.
"He was an overweight child," Klinkhamer said. "He was looking for something to do for his community."
As part of the program, participants are given the opportunity to work out for 45 minutes a week. The program also focuses on a child's personal struggles, such as body image and bullying, and families are taught nutritional lessons.
"Most programs are just fitness and nutrition," Klinkhamer said. "Obviously, these kids need fitness and education and nutrition, but a lot of it is the psychological stuff, the body image, the self-esteem. There's also the psychology around the reasons we eat, understanding when we are hungry and when we are full. A lot of kids don't realize that they're eating because they are angry or are stressed."
The parents are a vital part of the discussion, she said.
"The parents are totally responsible for the child," Klinkhamer said. "Whether the child is getting enough activity, that's the parent's issue, not the child's. I think that parents have forgotten that their child's health is their No. 1 priority."
That especially holds true for younger children, she said.
"Obviously if a 4- or 5-year-old is struggling with weight, it's not because they're playing too many video games," Klinkhamer said. "It's because they are being fed the wrong things."
She stressed the importance for parents to know what their kids are eating when they are not home, like at school.
"Is it OK if they are eating chicken fingers every day?" Klinkhamer said. "No, that's not OK. If your child is struggling with weight, you kind of need to have a general idea of what is going on in their whole world."
Plano resident Ana Chamu Villa decided to enroll her two daughters in Presence Mercy Medical Center's I'm Reducing Obesity in Children nutrition program last year after they were diagnosed as being overweight. Villa wanted to prevent them from developing health problems, including diabetes, which runs in the family.
Through the program, Villa said they learned how to read nutritional labels and prepare healthy meals. As a result, her daughters are eating healthier.
"They both have lost 10 to 15 pounds each," she said.
The free program is offered to children 5 to 10 years old at various locations throughout the year.
"Children are in one room participating in hands-on cooking demonstrations while parents are in another room receiving educational programming," Presence Mercy Medical Center marketing project coordinator Marianne Renner said. "Then at the end of each session, the parents can taste test the recipes that the children made."
The little steps – moving more, not super-sizing every item eaten, eating healthy food – add up to results, Henry said.
The messages given can't sound too harsh, Henry cautioned. Advising parents to walk their children to the park is going to sound easier to accomplish than setting a specific amount of minutes and days a week to be active.
"It's that word 'exercise,' for a certain time, that can seem overwhelming," she said. "All the little steps add up, the activities add up, and we'll start to feel better."
• Shaw Media Projects Editor Kate Schott and Shaw Media reporter Shawn Shinneman contributed to this report.