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L.A. Organizations Fight Against Childhood Obesity

Gabi Duncan |
December 16, 2013 | 9:23 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Local programs are teaching kids sports skills at a younger age (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
Local programs are teaching kids sports skills at a younger age (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
Children know more about technology, smartphones, the Internet and social media than their parents ever will. They are aware of a lot of things that their parents couldn’t even comprehend at the same age. However, new research has found that when it comes to physical fitness, there is no contest. Parents are miles ahead of their children.

The American Heart Association released a study in November, which revealed that children couldn’t keep up with their moms and dads. Grant Tomkinson, an exercise physiologist at the University of Australia, led a research team and analyzed 25 million children around the world. They discovered that children couldn't run as fast or as far as their parents could when they were young. 

The researchers conducted 50 studies on children fitness in 28 different countries from 1964 to 2010. On average, it took children 90 seconds longer to run a mile than their parents did 30 years ago. They concluded that today’s children are 15 percent less fit. Not surprisingly, heart-related fitness declined five percent per decade since 1975 for children between the ages of 9 and 17.

There are several factors that contributed to this decline. Mainly, children don’t have the same incentives to go outside and run around like they used to. There are too many distractions that get in the way.

“I think it is cultural. Things have changed,” said Dr. Mark Urman, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “The kids didn’t have the same options back then. You didn’t have video games, the computer or the Internet. Now, they tend to be sitting in front of the television much more, not moving or participating in formal sports activities.”

Children in South L.A. are particularly susceptible due to the lack of healthy food options and safe neighborhoods in the community.

“The typical American diet is not as healthy as it used to be,” said Dr. Urman. “There’s a lot more junk food, a lot more refined carbohydrates and snacks. The children aren’t eating fruits and vegetables as they should be, which leads to weight gain and an increased risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.”

The lack of proper fitness and nutrition also leads to higher childhood obesity rates. According to Urman, the obesity rates in South L.A. have more than tripled in the last 30 years, and this will have serious health implications for these children in the future.

“It just means that we have a population that is more likely to have to see people like me, a cardiologist, as they develop heart problems and diabetes,” said Dr. Urman. “These can be tragic diseases in relatively young people.”

Fortunately, there are organizations within the community that are fighting against this harmful epidemic.

Kids learn the basics of growing their own food with the Teaching Gardens program (The American Heart Association).
Kids learn the basics of growing their own food with the Teaching Gardens program (The American Heart Association).

The American Heart Association does its part with programs aimed at batting childhood obesity. They use their Teaching Gardens program to drastically change the way children eat and think about food. The organization targets elementary school students and instructs them on how to plant seeds, nurture growing plants, harvest produce and develop healthy eating habits. The L.A.-based program has touched nearly 7,000 students throughout the workshops. 

“We know that fruits and vegetables are a part of a healthy lifestyle and diet,” said Dr. Urman. “It’s a really wonderful way to educate our children about the importance of fresh produce and incorporating it into their day-to-day lives.”

They also have the Kids Cook With Heart program, which goes hand-in-hand with Teaching Gardens. It educates children about preparing nutritious meals at home. The six-week program is taught by a professional chef and strives to influence kids to consume more fruits and vegetables, instead of foods full of sugar, sodium and fat. Studies prove that youth who prepare their own meals are more likely to eat nutrient-rich foods.

In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move initiative to eradicate childhood obesity in the next generation. This organization focuses on putting children on the right path to a long and healthy future. 

“The organization is all about physical activity, healthy eating and all the kinds of things that you need to do in order to give yourself a quality lifestyle,” said Denise Hunter, the executive director of Let’s Move Nation. “It’s a multi-prong approach within families. We’re helping the kids understand the importance of physical activity. We’re also teaching the parents how to prepare better meals and participate in fitness opportunities with their kids.”

The high numbers of obesity, heart disease and diabetes within the African American community initially motivated Hunter to get involved.

According to a study conducted by the Department of Public Health in 2011, Latinos (29.4%) and African Americans (29.2%) in L.A. County have much higher adult obesity rates than Whites (17.6%) and Asians/Pacific Islanders (8.9%). Furthermore, African Americans experience higher mortality rates from diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease.

“I knew that we needed to do something to resolve that issue,” she said. “But, there’s a multiplicity of things that go into it. Obviously, parks sometimes aren’t safe, and often parents don’t have enough time to go out with their kids and play because they’re working. I also think the access to healthy food is an issue. We know that particularly in South L.A., there are more fast food restaurants than any other kinds of restaurants. We recognize that there is a lack of access, and we’re working to address all of those issues.”

One way the organization addresses those issues is by partnering with the Los Angeles Unified School District to sponsor community activities and events for children. Last month, they hosted “Move It,” a 5K run/walk complete with a health festival. The kids and their parents had the opportunity to participate in a variety of fun, fitness-based activities.

“We bring out hula hooping, jump roping – all of the old-fashioned stuff that we’re used to,” said Hunter. “But, we also have new things like zumba as well. We’re hoping that people will find something that they really like because that’s the whole point. We want to connect people with something that they really like doing in the hopes that they will incorporate it into their life and do it long-term.”

It makes sense that it would be more effective for programs to target younger children because they haven’t had the chance to develop unhealthy habits. So, some fitness programs in L.A. have begun targeting preschoolers, giving them a head start to foster positive lifelong habits.

The Lionheart Fitness program is enjoyable for both the kids and the coaches (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
The Lionheart Fitness program is enjoyable for both the kids and the coaches (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
Lionheart Fitness Kids and Playball are two programs that teach preschool-age children the fundamentals of different sports, including baseball, hockey, tennis, basketball, soccer and football. Plus, they reward the kids for healthy habits, like eating their fruits and vegetables and drinking water. They also instill the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship, independence, confidence and respect. The activities challenge the kids both physically and mentally. 

“These days, it’s gotten to a point where parents are feeding their kids all sorts of sugary foods, and they’re not getting any exercise,” said Godfrey Griffin, the Lionheart Fitness Kids L.A. director. “There’s a huge childhood obesity epidemic, and we’re really trying to combat that and help kids stay active, get outside and learn that there is more out there than just video games.”

Playball’s director Dena Brook shares Griffin’s attitude. 

“Most of today’s children are not getting outside and are becoming lazy,” said Brook. “It’s affecting their physical development. They’re growing up with poor growth and motor skills. Being active and running around is important for children. I believe this a wonderful beginning and foundation to give them a positive outlet for sports, exercise and fitness for the future.”

While the study produced by the American Heart Association, and the local fitness and health programs, continue to raise awareness about the seriousness of childhood obesity, there is still more work to be done.

“I do believe that people are becoming more aware, and I think there are a lot of initiatives that are out right now that are helping people be able to access healthier, more quality food,” said Hunter. “There are more exercise classes and free options that weren’t necessarily out there before. So, things are improving but not at the rate that we would like to see.”

Because parents have more experience and knowledge, the bulk of the responsibility must fall on their shoulders to help their children lead healthy lives.

“Parents need to instill a concept of a healthy lifestyle in their everyday activities with themselves and their children,” said Urman. “They need to set an example of being active and eating right.”

The American Heart Association recommends that children get at least 60 minutes of vigorous activity each day. Currently, only one-third of American kids do so. 

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more young people begin to have problems that require intervention,” said Dr. Urman. “If all these young people had healthier lifestyles, it would be bad for business for me, but it would be good for the next generation.”

Reach Staff Reporter Gabi Duncan here. Follow her on Twitter.



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