[Flynn] Kids Need Sports

It's not news that childhood obesity is a major problem in America. The problem is particularly bad in Mississippi. As recently as last June, our state led the nation in obese children, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2010."

One of the problems I have with this report, however, is its use of body mass index, or BMI, as the end-all and be-all of measuring physical fitness. BMI does not distinguish between body fat and muscle, nor does it account for bone density, muscle or where fat is located on the body. To me, that makes using BMI a poor statistic to determine obesity rates.

Case in point: Major League Baseball players are getting fatter, reported Eric Ding of the Harvard School of Public Health in March. Researchers used the players' BMI to determine if the players were overweight. In the steroids era, however, athletes in all sports have been getting bigger, stronger and faster for years. In this case, using BMI to determine obesity is irresponsible.

I am not saying that Mississippi adults and children don't have a problem with obesity, but I question the near-exclusive use of BMI to figure obesity rates. Hydrostatic (underwater) weighing is the most accurate way to calculate body fat (if you can find a hydrostatic weighing tank, which can be a problem). The next best way is by using a skin-fold caliper.

This leads me back to childhood obesity and how to fight it. Many have pointed out that schools need to do more to help combat obesity in children. While schools should help in this fight, good physical fitness habits need to begin long before children start school. It is hard to get kids fit if they do not learn and reinforce good habits at home.

Parents can start their children on the road to good physical health by having them go outside and play, for example. When my wife and I are out on the weekends, I am amazed that we do not see kids playing outside very often.

The same thing goes for eating habits. It is all well and good to demand better school lunches, but parents have to enforce healthy eating in day care and at home, too. Finally, kids need to learn good sleep habits.

Mississippi has done a number of things to promote healthy children while at school. One such measure is the 2007 Mississippi Healthy Students Act. The law mandates minimum requirements for healthy lifestyles and physical education in public schools, including:

• For kindergarten through eighth grade, 150 minutes per week of physical education and 45 minutes per week of health education.

• For grades nine through 12, one semester of physical education or physical activity for graduation.

School wellness plans to promote increased physical activity, healthy eating habits, and abstinence from tobacco and illegal drugs.

• A physical activity coordinator at the State Department of Education.

• Directs the State Board of Education to adopt regulations that address healthy food and beverage choices, healthy food preparation, marketing of healthy food choices and methods to increase participation in the Child Nutrition School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, among other items.

With schools facing more budget cuts, they must also find and use innovative ways to keep physical education on the curricula. Sacrificing PE doesn't mean kids will do better in math and English; in fact just the opposite is true. Kids who are physically active and fit tend to perform better academically.

Major sports leagues across the country have programs to help schools fund physical education.

The NFL's "Keep Gym in School" program gives grants to schools and recognizes gym teachers for their performance. The league also challenges kids to do 60 minutes of physical activity every day through its "Play 60" program.

Also getting into the act to inspire kids to become active is the NBA and Major League Baseball. I am sure one reason behind their fitness campaigns is that healthy and active kids will provide those organizations a better work force, but even 1980s pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper is working to end childhood obesity.

By far the biggest star has been first lady Michelle Obama, who made physical fitness and fighting childhood obesity her crusade during her husband's first term.

Getting kids fit starts at home, but schools have to pick up where parents leave off. And even in this lousy economic climate, we can find ways to fund physical education.

Our country's future depends on it.

A self-described "sports junkie," Bryan Flynn is a lifelong Mississippi native who resides in Richland. When not working for the JFP, he writes a national blog, http://www.playtowinthegame.com. He lives with his wife and their four cats.


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