Tackling Indiana”s Obesity Epidemic

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Dec. 17
702 words

ImageINDIANAPOLIS — Last session of the legislature, lawmakers tabled a bill that would have banned soft drink sales from school vending machines during regular school hours. Since then, Hoosier youngsters have only gotten fatter.

Look for Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, to push even harder this session for legislation to address the disastrous state of child nutrition and physical fitness in Indiana.

Brown, as chair of the legislature1s Commission on Excellence in Health Care, heard some alarming testimony this summer on the topic of childhood obesity.

>From Dr. Tamara Hannon, professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine: Drinking one can of pop per day, on top of a normal diet, can lead to a yearly weight gain of up to 15 pounds.

>From Suzanne Crouch, health and physical education consultant to the Indiana Department of Education: The number of 6- to 11-year-olds who are overweight has increased 330 percent in the past 25 years. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes (the kind that used to be described as "adult onset diabetes") in adolescents has increased almost 1,000 percent in 20 years.

>From Indiana Health Commissioner Greg Wilson: Indiana1s schoolchildren are obese at a rate 5 to 6 percent over the national average.

The result of all this distressing information is House Bill 1014, forwarded to the Indiana General Assembly with bipartisan support of the study commission. While the members declined to take a position on vending machine sales, a big money-raiser for schools, they agreed that schools must be pushed harder to improve nutrition and fitness programming.

The bill would do three things: require the state Department of Education to develop nutritional recommendations for public schools; make available model policies for schools to measure students1 Body Mass Index, the best gauge for determining overweight and obesity; and require more physical activity for students, including daily activity for those in grades kindergarten through eight.

The bill falls short of demanding daily "physical education" for all Indiana public school students, which means recess would probably qualify as adequate physical activity.

That1s too bad, but inevitable considering the state1s budgetary woes. A fiscal note prepared by the Legislative Services Agency suggests that mandatory PE would require the hiring of more teachers and perhaps a longer school day, both of which would be extremely costly.

The Centers for Disease Control, the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education all endorse daily PE in grades K-12. Indiana requires only one year of PE in order to graduate from high school and recommends only 100 minutes per week in middle school, 75 minutes in grades 4, 5 and 6.

Few students come anywhere close to getting they need. During the 2000 legislative session, the General Assembly asked the Department of Education to survey and assess the extent of physical fitness programs provided by Indiana schools. Among the findings:

€ Only 2 percent of Indiana elementary students receive PE more than two days per week. National guidelines recommend 60 minutes of daily moderate activity.

€ At the typical high school, fewer than 20 percent of students are enrolled in elective physical education classes. At a majority of schools (80 percent), fewer than 40 percent of students are involved in extra-curricular sports.

€ Almost half of PE teachers say lack of time in the school day is the greatest obstacle to increasing physical activity among students. Twenty-two percent of teachers say the chief impediment is the schools1 emphasis on core subject matters.

Before lobbyists for the junk food industry protest that a child1s body fat is no business of the state, consider the consequences to taxpayers of the obesity epidemic.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the cost of obesity related disease nationally is $117 billion per year. This puts a huge burden on government programs such as Medicaid, which pay for medical care for the poor. Slightly more than 56 percent of Medicaid enrollees are overweight or obese.

Here1s one more sad but true statistic: The majority of fat kids become fat adults.

Schools, with their fried-food entrees and Coke-filled vending machines, are part of the problem. House Bill 1014 is a modest step toward a solution.

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Andrea Neal, former editor of the Indianapolis Star editorial page, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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