Halting the childhood obesity epidemic requires support of many communities

The obesity epidemic affects one-third of the children in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates in America have tripled over the last three decades and childhood obesity is now the leading health concern among parents in the United States. Bus and car rides have replaced walks to school, physical education classes have been cut and kids now spend 7.5 hours/day with computers, video games and TV instead of playing outside. With our busy lives, it’s also difficult for families to find time for healthy, home-cooked meals. 

Obesity is also a serious budget concern, as we spend $168 billion/year on obesity-related healthcare expenses. If we don’t address obesity among our youth, healthcare costs — already the fastest-growing area of federal spending — will continue to skyrocket. 

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 We must do something to improve the health and well-being of our children. We can start by instilling in them healthy habits at a young age to help them grow up to be healthy adults. 

 I’m pleased to say that smart steps have been taken. First lady Michelle Obama has led the way by helping promote healthy foods and physical activity among children. Her Let’s Move! campaign has encouraged parents, schools and kids across the nation to work together to create a healthier generation. The NFL’s Play 60 campaign promotes daily physical activity and helps children understand the benefits of exercise. And for the first time in 15 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has updated nutrition standards to make sure our kids are getting healthier foods at school. This is great progress and good news for the 31 million students who eat school lunch. More fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk all help our children develop healthy eating habits. 

 Children spend most of their day at school, and making sure they are exposed to healthy food choices and physical activity is important not only for their health but also for their academic achievement.

I authored the Fitness Integrated with Teaching (FIT) Kids Act to combat childhood obesity by strengthening physical education programs in our schools. A lack of regular physical activity not only affects a child’s health, it can also affect academic development, as research also shows that healthy children learn more effectively and are higher academic achievers. Unfortunately, many schools are cutting PE programs due to lack of resources and competing academic demands. According to the CDC, in 2009, only 33 percent of high school students attended physical education class daily.

 This FIT Kids Act gets to the simple truth: In order to develop healthy minds, you need healthy bodies. The legislation engages parents and the public by requiring school districts and states to report on students’ physical activity, including the amount of time spent in required physical education in relation to the recommended national standard. 

 Helping children make healthy choices during the school day will also help them make healthy choices at home. To further this effort, I authored the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act. Studies show that children spend less time outside today than at any other point in history, devoting only 4-7 minutes per day to outdoor activity. These statistics point toward a huge shift in the way kids “play,” resulting in increased obesity rates and a lack of a connection to the outdoors.

 The Healthy Kids Outdoors Act provides state-level incentives to develop five-year state strategies to connect children, youth and families with nature and promote outdoor recreation in communities. Children who get outdoors will develop a greater connection to nature, which means they’ll be more inclined to continue outdoor physical activity and protect the environment as they grow up. 

 With support from organizations like the American Heart Association, Campaign to End Obesity and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we can make these bills a reality and get this epidemic in check.

 The childhood obesity epidemic requires all sectors of society to come together to help create a healthier generation of kids. It can’t be a top-down approach from the federal government but instead a combination of incentives, greater family awareness and support from community-based organizations. This is about healthier choices in our schools, in our grocery stores and in our neighborhoods, providing the tools, education and opportunities to help Americans make the healthy choices that meet the needs of their families.

Kind is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, co-chairman of the Congressional Wellness Caucus, co-chairman of the Congressional Fitness Caucus, and co-chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Childhood Obesity.