Wicker Says Action Must Be Taken Against Childhood Obesity

September 28, 2009

Education and health care leaders from across the state met in Tupelo last week to attend the 2009 Mississippi Institute on School Health, Wellness, and Safety conference.  The gathering provided a unique forum for representatives from state agencies, school districts, non-profits, and associations that are focused on making Mississippi’s schools a healthy place to learn.

Of all the important challenges facing those  that attended the conference, perhaps none is more pressing than the problem of childhood obesity.  Obesity is not only threatening our children’s lives, it also is compromising their potential inside the classroom.  Studies show that children perform better academically when they are physically healthy.

Earlier this month, I announced SHAPE, or Strengthening Health and Physical Education, a new initiative to combat the childhood obesity problem in Mississippi.  SHAPE is a program housed at HealthWorks!, the new interactive kids’ health education center, which opened earlier this year in Tupelo.  SHAPE will serve as a statewide clearinghouse for motivated teachers, parents, school administrators, and others to connect to the vast array of resources, services, and grants available to fight obesity in our state. 

                           A DANGEROUS EPIDEMIC
The prevalence of obesity in the U.S. has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that we spend almost $150 billion per year on medical costs associated with obesity. 

Mississippi unfortunately leads the nation in percentage of obese adults and has the second highest prevalence of obese children.  Research shows that eight out of 10 obese adolescents will become obese adults. Overweight children are at higher risk for a host of serious, often life-threatening illnesses, including heart disease and stroke, diabetes, asthma and certain types of cancer. 

After working on SHAPE for the past five years, I am optimistic this new program will have a positive impact on our state’s anti-obesity efforts.  SHAPE has a great partner in the Health Care Foundation of North Mississippi, which will administer the program out of the HealthWorks! building.  It is my hope that SHAPE will provide “one-stop shopping” for every public and private entity, organization, funding stream, and resource related to combating obesity in Mississippi.  Data monitoring and research will need to be a key component for determining which strategies are effective, and SHAPE’s goal is to provide the necessary tools for those interested in implementing successful programs.

                          MAKING LIFESTYLE CHANGES
Not all of the problems that come with obesity can be solved by implementing an effective program at school or by visiting an interactive learning center like HealthWorks!.  We need to dramatically alter our lifestyles and redefine what actually comprises a healthy diet.  We must increase exercise and encourage our children to step away from video games and the television set and to become more active. 

These are changes that will take years to integrate into our daily lives, but they are critical if we are to stop this generation from becoming the first in a century with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.  HealthWorks! and SHAPE represent an encouraging start in helping focus on the lifestyle changes we need and providing us with the tools necessary to change the way Mississippi thinks about health, nutrition, and exercise.