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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014

Officials urged to help fight obesity

Friday, September 28, 2012

(Photo)
Rosalind Kurita
HENRY HORTON STATE PARK -- Former State Senator Rosalind Kurita, now a health policy advisor to Gov. Bill Haslam, told county commissioners from southern Middle Tennessee Thursday night that county government has a role to play in addressing the serious problem of childhood obesity.

Kurita was the keynote speaker at Thursday night's Tennessee County Commissioners Association regional meeting at Henry Horton State Park. Seven Bedford County commissioners and County Mayor Eugene Ray were among those in attendance.

Serious issue

In years past, Tennessee was not one of the worst states as far as obesity is concerned. It is now; the problem of childhood obesity has been getting worse in the U.S., and worse at an even faster rate here. In 2010, 27.6 percent of American children were obese; in Tennessee, that figure was 31.7 percent, the eighth worst in the nation.

Today's children, said Kurita, are the first generation expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

An obese person, she said, has 42 percent higher annual medical costs -- $1,429 more -- than someone who isn't obese.

Action is required, said Kurita.

"We're the parents," she said. "We're supposed to be responsible."

Government's role

But local government can also play a role, she said. Counties can make sure that places are available for walking and exercise. She said there's grant money available for sidewalks, parks and greenways.

Kurita visited Marshall County Health Department earlier in the day and praised the nearby greenway as an example of a public space that encourages physical activity.

She said old parks can be reclaimed and rejuvenated, while old bridges and empty buildings can be converted.

DeKalb County purchased an old strip mall and converted it into a community center and farmer's market. Old Stone Fort State Park, faced with an underperforming and expensive-to-maintain golf course, converted it into biking and hiking trails.

Another county created a 24-hour fitness center for county employees and their families, so that even emergency personnel working odd shifts can use it in the middle of the night.

In Pelham, she said, a new walking trail starts right next to the local elementary school, which encourages families connected to that school to use the trail.

Kurita said that Colorado now requires sidewalks in all new subdivisions as part of its approval process. Making sidewalks available encourages walking as well.

Active students

Kurita said current law mandates 90 minutes per week of physical activity in the schools -- but schools find it difficult to comply while still meeting academic requirements. Some count the time for class changes as physical activity, while others are simply out of compliance.

Willow Brook Elementary in Oak Ridge now has a program called "Mornings In Motion." While waiting for the last few school buses to arrive so that class can begin, early-arriving students are led in exercises in the gym.

Kurita noted that some schools have space problems, but for those which don't, an unused room can be turned into an in-school fitness center. Donated exercise equipment is usually easy to find, she said, because of the large number of individuals and families who purchase such equipment and then end up not using it.

Schools already have playgrounds and athletic facilities, but in some cases have been reluctant to make them available for non-school functions because of liability issues.

Playgrounds, Kurita said, are often locked up after normal school hours. But the "Joint Use Law," Public Chapter 368, passed within the past few years, says schools should make such facilities available to outside groups, provided those groups sign an agreement taking on any liability. So a community club, for example, could agree to take on liability for use of playgrounds outside school hours.

Sugary drinks

Kurita also said that the sale of high-sugar drinks in school vending machines is a problem. High school students are still learning good judgement, she said.

"Kids who are in high school think they're big -- but we do know better," she said.

However, during a question-and-answer period following Kurita's presentation, Bedford County commission member P.T. "Biff" Farrar -- who teaches in the vocational building near Shelbyville Central High School -- noted that vending machine revenue is essential for the operation of the vocational program.

"What are we doing," Kurita asked, "when we're counting on a vending machine to put services in front of our kids?"

Kurita said it would be possible to keep the machines but simply change the selection, eliminating unhealthy choices.

Farrar, however, said he thinks cutbacks in physical education classes are more to blame for obesity.

Close walks

Commissioner Jimmy Woodson, who drives a special education school bus, said he's shocked at the normal bus routes for his school, which pick up children who are within easy walking distance.

"I'd be embarrassed, as a parent, to ask" for pickup that close to the school, said Woodson.