Time to weigh in on childhood obesity -- Gazette.Net


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A lot of work needed to get county youths on healthier tracks



More than one-third of children between the ages of 12 and 19 in Prince George’s County are overweight or obese. At 34.7 percent, the county has the fifth highest rate in the state. County adults are doing even worse: About 74 percent are overweight or obese.

Before chastising parents for the childhood obesity rate, however, it’s important to note that in many Prince George’s communities, it’s much easier to be — put quite simply — fat.

High crime rates in some neighborhoods make it difficult for children to play outdoors, limiting simple games that keep youths active, like tossing a football or playing tag.

Of the county’s restaurants, 71 percent are fast-food establishments. And opting to eat healthy at home can be challenging too. The county has been categorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “food desert,” an area where healthy food isn’t easily accessed.

Making matters worse, unhealthy dining options often come at a much more affordable price than the healthier alternatives.

On the positive side, officials are addressing the roadblocks to creating a healthier community.

Crime is at its lowest in years, and county leaders are partnering with organizations to provide safer recreation options. A new program, PhotoVoice, was launched to encourage teens to take photos of challenges that hinder access to community centers in hopes of finding ways to address the problems. Some teens wasted no time in taking pictures of pedestrian safety concerns and signs of criminal activity.

Health department leaders are working to inform residents about the health risks involved with being overweight and provide advice on how to get on the right track.

“One of our primary services is to promote healthy literacy,” said Dr. Ernest Carter, deputy health officer for the Prince George’s County Health Department. “That’s one of the biggest barriers to healthy eating is just not knowing.”

Community groups and municipalities are pitching in, as are schools, which switched to healthier menu options in 2009. Needless to say, many students balked when presented with additional fresh fruits and vegetables early on, but the foods have grown on them over time. Oxon Hill High School, which has a salad bar, is actually asking to have the bar expanded.

There is still a lot of work to do, however.

Maryland schools are only required to provide physical education at least once a week for 30 minutes — even though most health organizations say children should get a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise each day. Although recess is generally offered daily to younger children, that time isn’t always spent on physical activity.

Carly Braxton, senior manager of advocacy for the Reston, Va.-based American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, points out studies showing that a good physical education program leads to better attention spans, lower absenteeism and disciplinary problems, and higher test scores — an issue that would benefit county students, whose test scores rank among the lowest in the state.

Clearly, the overall community plays a large role in children’s health, but the most important factor is what is being taught at home. The seven hours or so children spend at school every day is no match for the knowledge — and habits — they pick up from their families.

It’s critical that parents instill good eating habits and active lifestyles while their children are young. For adults who haven’t led healthy lives themselves, information is available via the county health department, community and other government organizations, and health-focused websites.

Parents must take the time to educate themselves and encourage their families to live healthier lifestyles. Hopefully, working to make children healthier will change the habits of entire families, as well.

Yes, the county has its share of challenges to overcome, but obesity is not an issue that can afford a lot of excuses. The many risks associated with obesity — overweight children are more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, breathing problems and joint problems, to name a few — should be enough to get parents focused on getting their children healthier.

Parents must act now, or their children will pay the price.