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Obesity on the Rise in State

Today's children could be considered the "lost generation" when it comes to physical fitness. The prevalence of computers and video games has lead to a generation that spends more time sedentary and indoors rather than being outside running around and exercising. The result is more and more children are considered overweight or even obese.

"This generation of children is at risk more than any other by far," said Mary Marks, instructional coordinator for health and physical education with the Fairfax County Public Schools. "It can be deceiving. We see all the crowded soccer fields and assume they are all participating and that is not always the case. Especially with low-income families were the parents may be working two jobs and don't have time to make sure their children are participating in community activities."

ACCORDING to the Virginia Department of Health, overweight and obesity is not just a problem for children, but adults as well. In 2001, 57 percent of adults in Virginia were overweight or obese, which is up from 40 percent in 1991. In addition, a 2000 sampling of fourth-graders in 15 schools throughout the state showed 17 percent were overweight, compared to a 1997 sampling of the same age group in 10 schools, which showed 15 percent.

The Fairfax County Health Department does not keep statistics on obesity, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates two-thirds of adults and 9 million children are either overweight or obese. Obesity, according to the national public health sources, is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

The National Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines overweight as an "increased body weight in relation to height, when compared to some standard of acceptable or desired weight." Typically measured by using the body mass index, a mathematical formula that takes a person's body weight in kilograms and divides it by the square of the person's height in meters. Obesity, on the other hand, is defined as "an excessively high amount of body fat or adipose tissue in relation to lean body mass."

Individuals with a body mass index of 25 to 29.9 are considered overweight, while someone with a body mass index of 30 or more is considered obese, according to the CDC.

THE COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT has developed a program to address adult obesity, specifically in minorities that are considered at-risk. The program is based on education rather than a specific exercise regime or diet.

"The goal is to reduce cardio-vascular disease," said Shauna Severo, the department's long-term care coordinator. "People in the program willing to commit to a healthier, low-fat diet and increase their regular exercise to 15 to 20 minutes three times a week."

The program involves a member of the health department conducting an educational session at a community center or other public area at the request of a civic or neighborhood group. Those interested in participating, adults ages 18 to 64 or the targeted group, meet with a health coordinator and together they set goals and the individual commits to making a healthy lifestyle change. The individuals are then monitored and have follow-up sessions with the health coordinator, said Mary Jo Ivan, the program's coordinator.

Since the program began, the county has conducted about 16 educational programs for 154 people. Of those about 67 individuals have committed to making healthy lifestyle changes and 38 percent of the individuals have followed through with a plan set up with a coordinator, said Ivan.

The idea is by educating adults about the potential health risks of being overweight or obese, they can take preventive steps to stay healthy. In addition, they can pass the healthy habits onto their children.

People, regardless of age or race, that are overweight or obese increase their risk for various diseases such as high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallstones, gout, osteoarthritis, some forms of cancer and psychological disorders such as depression and low self esteem.

"If you look at all the diseases that are on the rise in this country, most are all related to the kinetic diseases," Marks said.

AS A RESULT of the growing waistlines, the school system has also made changes in its curriculum. The focus has shifted from playing sports in gym class to overall wellness education. The curriculum has been phased in over the past couple of years.

"We teach about fitness, goal setting and give them the knowledge they need to make proper decisions, as well as play games," Marks said. "We really feel one of the things missed in the past, and one of the things we're trying to address, is this generation really missing out on the opportunities offered by physical education. We're teaching them to set their own goals and reach those goals. We stress individual goals, not compared to others."

The changes are already in place in grades four through 10, and are expected to be rolled out to grades first through third this upcoming school year and to kindergarten the following year.

The school system has also used grant money to bring technology into the picture, purchasing heart-rate watches and pedometers for high-school gym classes so the students can monitor whether they are hitting their target zones. In addition, the school system is purchasing assessment systems, similar to those in private gyms, that measure fitness levels.

In addition, the school menus do not include planned meals that contain more than 10 percent saturated fat and 30 percent calories from fat, with fresh fruits and vegetables highlighted each month. And the snack and soft drink vending machines are turned off during school hours. The Office of Food and Nutrition Services also conducts classroom lessons.

"It has to be a partnership with the parents and the schools," said Penny McConnell, director of Office of Food and Nutrition Services for the school system. "The kids are not getting adequate exercise. We look at ourselves as partners to make sure the children are ready to learn with nutritious breakfasts and lunches."