The recent report that obesity among preschoolers has dipped slightly is positive news for our communities. While we cheer the steps communities and families have taken to make children healthier, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Obesity in children ages 2-4 may be decreasing; however the high prevalence of obesity among adolescents remains virtually unchanged.
Given the stubbornness of the teenage obesity problem, the findings of a just-released study by researchers at UCLA offer hope that teens can lead healthier and more productive lives if they are offered the right opportunities.
While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent obesity analysis found that obesity rates for preschoolers declined from 14.9 percent in 2009 to 14.4 percent in 2011, data from other research show that more than a third of children ages 10-17 are obese or overweight. Regardless of age, the chances of children being obese or overweight increase if those children come from low-income backgrounds.
Among children in Los Angeles County, 42 percent are considered overweight or obese, and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health says that “economic hardship” is the primary factor influencing childhood obesity.
Further, an alarming proportion of Los Angeles County students cannot complete even the most basic fitness tasks. According to the California Department of Education, 56 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District seventh-grade students did not pass the state-mandated FITNESSGRAM, which is a multipart physical fitness exam administered to students in various grades.
Yet, despite such statistics, there is much reason to be hopeful that things are changing for the better.
Research shows that evidence-based physical-activity programs for low-income obese/overweight children can result in substantial benefits. The UCLA study analyzed one such program sponsored by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Sound Body Sound Mind Foundation.
Under SBSM’s program, commercial-grade gym equipment is donated to public schools, mostly in Los Angeles County, so that students can exercise and familiarize themselves with fitness techniques that will result in healthier and more-active lifestyles. SBSM also provides a curriculum that builds student competence and confidence in physical activity beginning with the basics of fitness and movement. In addition, the foundation makes available professional development for teachers that focus on best practices.
The UCLA study conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the SBSM program as it was implemented at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles, which serve a predominantly minority and low-income student population.
Specifically, the researchers acquired and analyzed seventh- and ninth-grade FITNESSGRAM test scores for nearly 400 students, comparing before-and-after scores and examining how the RFK student scores compared with average scores in the LAUSD and California as a whole.
What the researchers discovered was eye-opening.
According to the UCLA study, “Students at the RFK Community Schools witnessed a dramatic increase in their FITNESSGRAM testing performance after the completion of the SBSM Curriculum.” While only 20 percent of the students passed the FITNESSGRAM test prior to the initiation of the SBSM curriculum, an amazing 60 percent did so after completion of the curriculum.
This latter passing rate outdistanced both the LAUSD and state rates, a reversal from RFK’s pre-SBSM days when the school’s students lagged behind the district and the state rates. The study also found that not only did the passing rates increase, the average scores in each of the FITNESSGRAM tests improved dramatically after implementation of the SBSM curriculum.
For example, RFK students showed a 63 percent improvement in scores for the FITNESSGRAM test for muscular strength-upper body. Sizeable score increases were also found for tests in cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength-core strength, flexibility-lower body, and flexibility-upper body.
In sum, the UCLA study found that participation in the Sound Body Sound Mind program led to a significant increase in the fitness of the students involved, which one can conclude will lead to better well being, including reductions in obesity.
SBSM’s program is currently being used in 88 schools in the Los Angeles area and has plans to expand, not just in Southern California, but also in other states. Perhaps the most hopeful and potentially long-lasting result of the SBSM program is the response of students, who when surveyed, said in large numbers that the program was effective and made them more knowledgeable about fitness and exercise. It is upon such knowledge that these children can build and look forward to healthier and more productive lives.