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Monday, August 20, 2012

With National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month nearing, emphasis on fun exercise is critical

Photo by Scott Julian
With the third annual National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month just 11 days away, it is critical now -- as much as ever -- to shine the brightest light possible on solutions to a crisis that continues to deepen in this country.

By now, you probably know how dire the situation is. I could ring off dozens of depressing statistics, but a few should do the trick:
  • More than 23 million children and teenagers are obese/overweight
  • Nearly 1 in 3 children are at risk of Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even stroke (problems usually only found in adults)
  • In DC, the obesity rate in Ward 8 is nearly 50%!

During September -- and, really, throughout the year to a lesser extent -- the mainstream focus will be on what we're feeding children. In schools. At home. Wherever. 

This is important, but far from the lone solution.

The overlooked aspect is what DC SCORES does very well -- provide a fun mode of physical activity for children.

We can feed kids all the vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy foods we want, but if they don't exercise, they won't be healthy. That's a fact. 

Last month, I got the chance to visit DC SCORES' Soccer & Arts camp at Marie Reed Elementary School. What struck me about the camp -- besides the awesome Bachata dance performance -- was how many alumni, now high school students, were working as counselors or were there just to help out. And they were all playing soccer with the kids, too -- boys, girls, Latinos, African-Americans, everybody.

How is this related to fighting childhood obesity?

Photo by Scott Julian
It's important because it demonstrates a long-term, lasting impact on children's well-being. When students join DC SCORES, many of them have never played soccer before -- or at least not on a team. By the time they graduate from our program, some after elementary school and many after middle school, they have an ingrained love of the game and want to keep playing. Some go on to play for high school and club teams. Others aren't quite at that level, but continue to play in recreational games and at our alumni events. 

Without consciously thinking, 'I need to get exercise to be healthy,' kids who go through our program are getting the exercise they need through soccer because it's fun and because they enjoy being on a team. 

DC SCORES' curriculum also teaches nutrition, and we have a scaled-down winter program, the USDA's Power of Choice, that uses hands-on cooking lessons to show students how to prepare and eat healthy food.

But think on this for a moment:

What were you eating as a teenager, let alone a middle school student? What were you craving? Yep, I have to admit it -- I went to McDonald's, I loved fried food. 

The bottom line is that kids, when given the choice, aren't always going to pick the fruit over the bag of potato chips. We can teach them nutrition, but it will take time and maturity for them to make real changes in their eating habits. 

What we can really effect are their exercise habits. Give them an outlet for fun, consistent exercise. Provide them with an activity that they will grow to love and continue to come back to after they're out of our control. 

That, ultimately, will lead to more healthy teenagers who mature into adults making smart decisions about what they put in their bodies. 

Learn more about National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and find resources to help your community on the month's home page.

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