As childhood obesity grows, steps taken to get kids moving
Eighth Street Elementary School student Aubree Grubbs furiously peddled a stationary bicycle one recent evening at the Frank DeLuca YMCA Family Center. Holding a video game controller, Aubree looked up at a television screen and guided a bicycle along a virtual course.
The 6-year-old was not there just to get healthy. She was actually using an ExerBike to play a Sonic the Hedgehog video game. Nearby, dozens of other children slapped bouncing lights in the game “T-Wall,” a quasi-vertical version of Whack-A-Mole. Instead of using mallets to hit the heads of faux moles popping out of random holes, the children used their hands to slap randomly flashing lights on a mat hanging on a wall.
All this activity was part of the grand opening of a new healthy ExerGame center that YMCA officials purchased as part of an effort to combat childhood obesity, which is at a crisis level in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, the number of obese Marion County children is growing rapidly, according to the Florida Department of Health in Marion County.
During the 2007-08 school year, 20.6 percent of nearly 10,000 local students in first, third and fifth grades were found to be obese when tested by the health department. That rose to 26.7 percent in 2012-13. The percentage of children deemed overweight and obese in those grades rose from 38.4 percent in 2007-08 to 46.4 percent in 2012-13.
Ben Marciano, the YMCA’s executive director, learned of the ExerGame system recently and knew it was perfect for his facility. And his wish to purchase the equipment came true when the YMCA received a $50,000 donation from a local pediatrician who, like so many of his colleagues, is concerned about childhood obesity. Marciano purchased several ExerGame devices, including “I-Dance” and “3-Kick.”
Dr. Chris Okonkwo, who owns Children’s Health of Ocala, said he has always been concerned about childhood obesity. But his concern has grown in recent years, noticing a worsening epidemic in Marion. “I began to notice more obesity in younger and younger children,” he said. He felt the investment in the ExerGame equipment was needed in the community.
His wife and office manager, Yasmine, said she also encourages patients to address their weight, using a 5-2-1-0 program to instill healthy living principles. It’s a “daily” plan pushed several years ago by the Marion County Children’s Alliance.
Five is the number of helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Two is for the maximum number of hours spent watching television and playing video games. One represents an hour spent doing cardiovascular exercise. Zero is the number of sweetened soft drinks consumed.
“Children in our community spend so much time playing video games,” Dr. Okonkwo said while looking at the new equipment. “I think this is a good idea.”
As YMCA spokeswoman Nicole Orr welcomed guests to the Rob McCoy Teen Center, she shared information about the equipment. The teen center is located beside the pool, separate from the YMCA’s main building. Rob McCoy, 21, was killed in a crash in Jacksonville in 2008. His parents, Randy and LuAnn, donated money to the YMCA in honor of their son, a 2006 graduate of Forest High School.
The parents were on hand for the unveiling. “Rob was into fitness and kids,” Randy McCoy said. “He would be proud.” Thanks to donations from many in the community, including the McCoys and Frank DeLuca, the YMCA is nearing its $5 million goal to renovate the Southeast 17th Street complex. A couple of months ago the donations had exceeded more than $4.7 million. Marciano said he’s ready for the YMCA makeover.
Nationwide, the CDC states that: Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents during the past 30 years. The percentage of obese children ages 6 to 11 in the United States rose from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010, the latest year for which statistics were available. The percentage of obese adolescents ages 12 to 19 increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.
It’s such an important issue that first lady Michelle Obama created the “Let’s Move” campaign during her husband’s first term. It aims to teach children and parents about healthy living. The cost of obesity-related illness tops $145 billion annually, according to letsmove.gov.
The CDC states that schools “play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors.” The website states schools provide opportunities for students to learn about — and practice — healthy eating and physical activity.
At Hammett Bowen Elementary School, physical education teacher Nikki Hargis launched the “Morning Mile Club” three years ago to combat obesity. Students arriving early on school buses, or dropped off by parents, can walk or run around the school’s track. Each lap is a quarter-mile and the school issues incentives for students who reach the 50- and 100-lap benchmarks. A 50-lap member gets a tennis shoe with his or her name on it put out on display, and 100-lappers get their photo taken and displayed. Anywhere from 200 to 400 students participate each day before school, a large portion of Hammett Bowen’s enrollment of 800.
It’s another way that the community is addressing childhood obesity.
It’s especially important now because “children don’t have as much time in a day for recess,” Hargis said.