Pushing themselves to lead healthy lives

FitnessGram helps identify children at risk for weight-related problems


Thirteen-year-old Josh Turner knows what it feels like to have kids make fun of him because of his weight.

"I know I'm overweight," Josh said. "The kids at school give me a hard time so I tried a crash diet last year for about a week and that didn't work. But since then, I've lost about 20 pounds and kept it off."

More than 9 million children ages 6 to 19 in the United States are obese and just as many more are at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"Obesity is an epidemic," said William Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity for the CDC. "In the last 25 years, the incidence of obesity among teens has tripled, and doubled for kids ages 6 to 11 years old."

In an effort to identify children who are at risk for weight-related problems, Harford County schools have started a fitness-assessment program this year at elementary and middle schools. FitnessGram measures aerobic capacity, cardiovascular endurance and strength, using activities such as running, walking, sit-ups and push-ups. Pupils undergo timed workouts while wearing heart-rate monitors and pedometers.

Data from the quarterly tests is gathered, and a report that includes a comparison of a pupil's assessment to normal ranges, is sent home to parents.

"It's not enough to just tell the kids," said Ginny Popiolek, supervisor of elementary and middle school physical education. "The ones in the nonhealthy zone need help learning to change their lifestyle."

The origins of obesity begin well before school age, Dietz said.

"It's not exactly clear why, but research shows the fight against obesity begins prenatal," he said. "Breast-fed babies have a much smaller rate of obesity."

Although some researchers believe obesity is hereditary, Dietz, who has studied obesity and its causes for more than 25 years, says otherwise.

"We're now clear that obesity does not have a genetic basis," said Dietz. "The rapidity with which obesity has increased can only be explained by changes in the environment that have modified the calorie intake and energy expenditure."

The main factors that determine whether a person becomes obese, Dietz said, are diet, amount of daily activity and technology.

"Fast-food consumption accounts for more than 40 percent of a family's food budget. Soft drink consumption supplies the average teenager with over 10 percent of their daily caloric intake and the variety of foods available has multiplied," Dietz said. "Portion sizes have increased dramatically, and fewer children walk to school. Many watch television as they eat dinner. And schools struggling to improve academically have dropped physical education, and more homework means less time for physical activity after school."

Technology also plays a role in decreased activity among children, Dietz said.

"How many people still have car windows that you can roll down manually?" he said. "Everything is electric or powered -- can openers, lawn mowers and dishwashers. Years ago, we didn't have such advances in technology, and we did more things manually."

FitnessGram was developed in 1982 by the Cooper Institute, a nonprofit education and research center in Dallas that focuses on disease prevention. Pupils are asked to review the program as well.

Some pupils who underwent testing at Bel Air Middle School recently said they are using the data to set goals to increase their physical activity.

"I like being able to look at the heart-rate monitor to see how I'm doing," said 12-year-old Chris Tindilia. "Sometimes I am not making my goal, and I push myself harder."

Although some of the kids say the testing is hard, they agree that they are learning from the program.

"I know I have eat well to do well in sports, so I eat a lot of carrots and vegetables," said Brian Carraggio, 13. "I like to come in and do the FitnessGram testing because I can see where I am and set goals to do better than other kids my age."

For some kids, the program is reinforcement of what they already do to stay fit.

"I've always been pretty healthy," said Ella Michel-Taylor, 13. "This program is really hard sometimes, but I think it's good to find out where you are health-wise. I've never been one of those kids that need to do more. But, I have friends that sit around all day and eat and do nothing but watch television."

Suzanne Turner, Josh's mother, said her son has become more active during the past year and his self-image has benefited as well.

"Josh's idea of a crash diet is to eat smaller portions," she said. "I realize that he's overweight, but if I allow his weight problem to consume him, it would even be more detrimental."

Although Josh isn't on a specific regimen of exercise or counting calories, he has picked up his activity level and decreased his calorie intake.

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