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Overweight Kids A Growing Concern For Schools

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Studies show North Carolina children are heavier and less well-nourished than in years past -- conditions that could lead to lifelong health problems.

There is a growing awareness that schools must begin to make issues of fitness a priority -- right up there with academics.

In America's fight against fat, the most urgent battle is among children.

"This is going to be a more overweight generation than we've ever seen before," said Dr. Leah Devlin, acting state health director.

One in four N.C. teenagers is overweight and one in five children ages 5 to 11 is overweight, according to the N.C. Nutrition and Physical Activity Surveillance System.

"When you look at the big picture of North Carolina, students are really two to three times as likely to be obese than other kids in the country," said Kymm Ballard, physical education consultant.

Health professionals said more children are showing early signs of chronic medical problems including hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

With information like this in hand, public health officials and physical education teachers took their case to the state Board of Education. Their message hit home for board member and state Treasurer Richard Moore.

"I went from being a very poor student who was overweight at age 15 watching academically my life turn around and it was lock step with understanding proper nutrition and physical fitness," he said.

The board stopped short of making daily PE a requirement, because doing so would take control away from local schools. Board members also expressed concern over how to pay for more PE teachers.

"We're not responsible for every health problem that comes across the table and we need the community to get with us," said Kathy Taft, state Board of Education member.

The board did pass a measure strongly encouraging school districts to set aside a minimum of 30 minutes of physical education a day for elementary students and 45 minutes a day for middle schools students.

"It's a great first step," Ballard said. "Our state board did not take this lightly. Local districts aren't taking this lightly."

Olive Chapel Elementary School in Apex is one of a growing number of schools doing more to keep children physically fit. First graders are even learning yoga.

"My goal is to give kids the skills to be healthy, to know what it means to be healthy," PE teacher Kathy Caggia said.

Olive Chapel Elementary students get 30 minutes of physical activity in their regular classrooms, four times a week. Caggia gets students in the gym once a week for 45 minutes of physical activity.

She believes kids have a right to physical as well as academic educations.

"PE is so much more than playing. It's health, it's stress reduction, it's safety, it's skills, it's motor skills, it's learning how to play appropriately," Caggia said.

"We know that a child that's had the chance to get out more, move and breathe fresh air if it's a good day, are better able to come inside and learn," Devlin said.

In other words, the gym is also a classroom. Some say it is a sad commentary that in this time of widespread health savvy, kids are doing so poorly.

The good news is that there are people like Caggia working to turn the statistics on kids and obesity around.

"I hope I make a difference and I hope that they're taking a lifelong activity with them when they leave here and the knowledge of how to be healthy," she said.

Physical activity is only part of the equation; diet is on the other.

Health professionals said schools cannot do this alone -- families play a critical role in the success of any program to reduce obesity in children.

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