13,000 steps toward solution to child obesity

March 02, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

The jumping in place left a few kids winded, at least one boy need to push off from the seat in front of him to clear the floor, and, when the fitness people asked what their favorite activities were, the first answer was the video game Grand Theft Auto.

But as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or in this case, 13,000 steps, which is the daily goal that wellness experts gave the students at Westside Elementary School yesterday -- along with pedometers to see how close they come -- as they launched a fitness initiative to target the growing problem of childhood obesity.

In truth, most of the 80 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders gathered in the school's auditorium yesterday seemed in pretty good shape. But with national stats showing that the number of students who are overweight has tripled since the 1970s, childhood obesity is increasingly becoming a subject that school districts are adding to their curriculum -- with some even weighing students and noting these "grades" along with their academic ones on report cards.

Anti-obesity forces got an unwitting poster boy this week with the news of an 8-year-old British kid, Connor McCreaddie, who was nearly removed from his home by social services officials who wanted to accuse his mother of child abuse for letting him balloon up to 218 pounds.

Dr. Kari Bichell says she has never seen a 200-plus-pound 8-year-old in her family medicine practice. "But certainly, I've seen 150 pounds at 8," said Bichell, the medical director of Get Fit Maryland, a wellness program that this year decided to focus on children rather than adults.

"It's now really a pediatric problem as well," Bichell said. "And the problem starts very early."

Two other schools, Bentalou and Frederick elementaries, will join Westside in the Get Fit Kids program, which is run by the University of Maryland Medical Center and School of Medicine and the Merritt Athletic Clubs. The kids will log the number of steps they take each day, and after three months, the school that has the highest percentage of students participating wins the grand prize: They get to go to an Orioles game. (I can't resist: No, second prize isn't two Orioles games.)

I checked in at the end of the school day with April Lucas, one of the Westside kids serving as "ambassadors" to the program -- they've been trained on how to help classmates use the pedometers and log in their steps -- and her eyes widened when she saw how many steps she had accumulated: 5,514. That didn't even count any steps before 10 a.m., when she got the pedometer, or the ones she'd take to an after-school program, and at home later on.

"I think it's good for me because I don't like to eat healthy," confessed April, who is 8 years old. "I like sugar and juices. But now I'm going to drink a lot of water instead."

She's ready to preach the good word to other students. "I'm going to tell them it's not good to eat nonhealthy foods. You can get cavities and diabetes."

At the launch, a couple of kids were taken to a table of food and encouraged to fill a shopping bag with the healthier options. As they correctly picked whole-grain cereal, a bottle of water, a banana and an orange, some classmates, a little unclear on the concept, urged, "Pick up the soda!"

Some children at one of the participating schools will be tracked over the course of the program to see if their body mass index -- a measure of obesity -- goes down, said Anne Williams, a University of Maryland Medical Center nurse and director of Get Fit Kids. But, she added, the focus of the program is not so much on losing weight as increasing activity.

Kids are spending more time in front of TVs, computers and PlayStations, and less time in gym class these days, fitness experts say. In fact, a bill pending in the Maryland General Assembly would increase the amount of physical education that students have to take, eventually requiring 2 1/2 hours a week.

"Right now, they get 45 minutes a week," Westside Principal Havanah Kenlaw said of her students. "I'd like to see it every day. But we only have a phys-ed teacher two days a week."

Kenlaw said she was "ecstatic" when the school was asked to join Get Fit Kids. She will be right in step with her students, whom she has drilled to remind her of what she resolved to do this year: "Lose 20 pounds," they say in unison when prompted. "Eat right."


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