The Health of Our Students: Front Page News

I got a call from the Post-Standard a few days ago. The news writer wanted me to comment on why the rates of overweight and obesity among Onondaga County students varied so dramatically—particularly between two districts. Here’s the back story…..

On Monday, April 6th, Governor Cuomo kicked off National Public Health Week by announcing his statewide educational campaign to reduce obesity. In collaboration, New York’s acting health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, launched a week-long, statewide tour to emphasize the importance of leading an active, healthy lifestyle that includes proper nutrition. His visit to Syracuse on April 7th included a stop at the Southwest Community Center where he spoke about the connection between screen time and obesity. Dr. Zucker stated the obvious—most children are not getting the recommended one hour of aerobic exercise daily because they are glued to their screens. “Getting kids to put down their cell phones and turn off the TV must be a priority,” Zucker said. “We must set time aside to make fitness part of their daily schedule.

So, back to the Post-Standard’s request for an interview. The news writer who called had reported on Dr. Zucker’s visit and wanted to dig a little deeper. We spoke about the many different factors surrounding childhood obesity: poverty, lack of access to nutritious foods, physical inactivity, genetics, environment, modeling at home, school policies and practices, etc. We spoke about how NYS collects information about student weight; the role our Healthy Schools NY program plays in the local efforts to reduce overweight and obesity; the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010; and NYSED mandates. After all that conversation, I was really looking forward to seeing what he had been able to compile.

So, after days of waiting, I was very eager to get the paper this morning to read the story. I appreciated that it did include a positive slant—highlighting the tireless efforts being made from the local to national level to reverse the obesity trend—and not just one big wet blanket of bad news. I won’t regurgitate the details of the article nor its companion piece, but I would like to reflect on a few points.

I was quoted as stating that most districts do not meet NYS mandates of 120 minutes per week for elementary students, with daily P.E. for students in grades K-3. While it is true that a major obstacle to meeting the mandate is due to budget cuts and P.E. staff being cut, as was printed, there was more that wasn’t printed. Many districts lack the appropriate facilities to accommodate daily P.E. for their younger students and do not have extra funds lying around to build a second gym. Some schools hold two classes in the gym at the same time, but that can lead to overcrowding and unsafe conditions resulting in class time not being used as it is intended—for moderate to vigorous physical activity at least 50-60% of the period. Regardless, I applaud these districts for acknowledging P.E.’s importance by trying to find creative solutions.

Another reason not stated for the lack of P.E. is due to the pressure of the Common Core. Probably not a big shocker. We all understand the ELA and math requirements (not to mention a slew of other mandates), and that there are just not enough hours in the day to fit everything in. So, when strategizing with schools as to how we can make their students healthier by fitting in more P.E., we always discuss the connection between movement and readiness to learn and the potential for greater academic success. Even if finding a way to fit in more P.E. class minutes cannot happen at that time due to conflicting priorities (or other reasons), there usually is agreement that it is worth the concerted effort to increase physical activity before, during and after the school day through brain breaks, recess, walking clubs, etc. Though these minutes cannot be counted towards the P.E. requirements, they are doing the best that they can at that time for the sake of their students.

There is no single solution to the overweight and obesity epidemic, just as there is no single reason for it. I felt that the article sufficiently emphasized that this issue is incredibly complex with individual, social, economic and environmental factors to consider. The SCSD Food Service Director stated that they are doing a lot of things to help students make the right choices, but that he had no control over what they were doing at home. And, so it goes with all schools. Districts can create comprehensive wellness policies that will help shift their buildings to healthier cultures. But, if students’ choices are not encouraged and supported outside those school walls, it will be more challenging for them to adopt lifelong healthy habits. And vice-versa: if mom and dad are modeling healthy choices at home, and their child is offered and consumes sweet birthday treats almost every day, that counteracts their efforts. Children need consistent messages on a regular basis, regardless of where they are, to reinforce the importance of developing healthy lifestyles.

I will admit that it was sobering to see Onondaga County’s public schools’ percentages of overweight or obese children on the front page for the entire world to see. The numbers grab your attention for sure, but I would encourage readers to keep these data in perspective and focus on the overall health of children as well. My hope is that, after reading both articles, you all have at least a marginally better understanding of the childhood obesity problem as well as the roles and responsibilities we all share in perpetuating it or solving it. As a public health educator @ OCM BOCES working with our regional districts, my role is to encourage them to be innovative and willing to make changes (steeped in tradition, I might add) so that the next time those numbers are printed, they’ll hopefully be lower.

Mcneill_Stacy_150px_1411Stacy McNeill

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