Data gathered and disseminated by the State Department of Health indicates that about 40 percent of Tennessee's children are overweight or obese. The immediate and long-term consequences of such alarming excess weight for the kids, individually and for society in general, are substantial.
The problem has gained considerable attention at local, state and federal levels, and there are various programs underway to combat the growing incidence of overweight and obese children. In Tennessee, Shape the State grants are a useful adjunct in that campaign.
The $10,000 grants, established by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation Inc., are to be used to improve middle school students' fitness with funds for training, curriculum and fitness. This is critical work. The amount of time school kids spend playing or exercising on their own or in school has dropped dramatically in recent years. That reduction in activity, most health officials agree, is among the major reasons for the growing epidemic of overweight and obese students. Shape the State grants should help reverse that troubling trend.
Five area schools recently received Shape the State grants: the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy; Ocoee Middle School in Cleveland; Sequatchie Middle School in Dunlap; South Pittsburg Academy; and West Middle School in Tullahoma. A total of 20 schools across Tennessee were awarded the grants.
There's little doubt that the grants address a major problem -- or that they will be utilized in a positive manner. Eddie Frazier, physical education teacher at Ocoee Middle School, is certainly appreciative. "Our 'Fitnessgram' shows 44 percent of our students last year were either overweight or obese. That's awful ... you see those numbers and that shows you what you're dealing with."
The grant will help teachers and school administrators create programs and curricula and purchase equipment designed to increase students' physical activity. The goal, of course, is to build programs that will provide both immediate and long-term benefits.
In the short term, increased attention to fitness should help students manage weight. In the long-term, fitness programs coupled with information about diet and exercise can lead to individual and family lifestyle changes that are beneficial. There is, in fact, growing evidence that targeted programs like Shape the State often lead to highly beneficial and desirable outcomes.
Overweight and obese youngsters are at higher risk than their peers for health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, breathing difficulties and, in some instances, cancer. And children with weight problems often become adults with debilitating, life-long and costly health problems.
Reversing that trend will take time, money, focus and continued adjustments to an increasingly regimented society in which kids spend more time in sedentary activities, i.e. electronic games, than in the free play that is essential to sound physical health and the maintenance of normal weight. Shape the State grants and similar programs should help restore a better balance of activity to the lives of the state's youngsters. Further support from parents and teachers would boost the results.