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Obesity in Children Being Addressed

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By David Berkowitz, Staff Writer

Obesity is a devastating public health crisis for the United States. Nearly one-third of all adults are now classified as obese, a figure that has more than doubled over the last 30 years.

During the same period, obesity has more than doubled among children ages 2-5 and more than tripled among those ages 6-11 and 12-19, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (2003-2006) indicate that 16.3% of children ages 2-19 are overweight. An additional 15.6% are considered at risk of becoming overweight.

Being overweight in childhood can lead to health problems, often for life. In adults, overweight and obesity are linked to increased risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, certain cancers and other chronic conditions. Research has shown that overweight children are at high risk of being overweight or obese as adults.

CAN DO Houston
To help reverse what some experts are calling an "epidemic," many communities are rallying around their children to provide opportunities they need to lead healthy lives. One example is CAN DO Houston: Children and Neighbors Defeating Obesity.

Formed in 2008 by Houston organizations, including M. D. Anderson's Center for Research on Minority Health (CRMH), the effort is concerned about childhood obesity and its health effects. A recent $360,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative will help CAN DO Houston expand its community-based efforts.

M. D. Anderson will oversee and manage the grant, which was one of only three awarded in Texas and 41 nationally. Efforts will focus on three Houston neighborhoods: Magnolia Park, Sunnyside and another neighborhood to be determined.

By tapping volunteers and existing resources, CAN DO Houston focuses on improving nutrition, physical activity and healthy behaviors for children ages 4-12.

"Our goal is to connect a school with a city park not only for physical activity, but as a connection point for parents and students to get advice, assistance and access to good nutrition," says Beverly Gor, Ed.D., executive director of CAN DO Houston and post-doctoral fellow in the CRMH, which is part of M. D. Anderson's Department of Health Disparities Research in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences.

"We are fortunate to have the Houston Independent School District (HISD) and the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department as partners in this initiative," she says.

Local efforts yield results
HISD's Briscoe Elementary, one of two pilot schools introduced to the CAN DO Houston initiative in 2008, bused children to a local park for exercise and sponsored student contests to win prizes for making healthy choices.

"We already noticed an improvement in standardized test scores as a result of improved rates of participation in physical activity among the students," says Briscoe Principal Juan Gonzalez, who is a CAN DO Houston board member.

Gor coordinates the various programs and volunteers that make the project work. "What we do at each school depends on the needs of the community and its children," she says. As these activities are implemented and evaluated, policy and environmental changes can be made to sustain efforts that address childhood obesity and the community's health.

In response to the needs in Magnolia Park, CAN DO Houston will:
• Address safety concerns that are a barrier to physical activity
• Establish walking clubs for Briscoe staff and parents
• Support cooking classes for parents and students

In the Sunnyside area, CAN DO Houston will:
• Conduct a pilot project providing fresh produce through area churches on Sundays
• Provide parenting education classes
• Develop the community's gardening program

CAN DO Houston plans to expand the initiative to one other neighborhood during the four-year grant period.

CAN DO Houston is a private non-profit organization composed of representatives from M. D. Anderson, HISD, The University of Texas School of Public Health at Houston, Baylor College of Medicine, City of Houston's Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Parks and Recreation, Healthy Kids, Healthy Schools Summit, Houston Police Department, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, the Houston Wellness Association and the Mayor's Wellness Council.

M. D. Anderson resources:

Center for Research on Minority Health

Department of Health Disparities Research


Additional resources:

CAN DO Houston

Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities


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