Following years of preventive and legislative efforts to positively affect the health of children, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced that the rise in obesity and drop in fitness levels have stabilized in California students. The results are in a peer-reviewed report titled "Obesity and Physical Fitness in California School Children," published in the American Heart Journal.
"For the first time, we have reached a critical turning point in our battle against the silent epidemic of childhood obesity," said Torlakson. "California was the first state to develop comprehensive obesity prevention and testing programs, which, coupled with the commitment of teachers and parents, are helping us get a handle on childhood obesity in the state."
William Bommer and his team of researchers at the University of California, Davis, examined the state's Physical Fitness Test data of more than 6 million students in the fifth, seventh, and ninth grades from 2003-08. The researchers found the obesity rate is slowing down when compared to annual increases in prior decades and in other national studies. In prior decades, childhood obesity increased 0.8 percent to 1.7 percent per year. In this study, obesity increased only 0.33 percent per year between 2003 and 2008.
Under the PFT, aerobic capacity is a key indicator of physical fitness and body composition is perhaps the most important indicator of who will develop future health problems. The Bommer study found there were improvements in aerobic capacity, body strength, and flexibility. However, the study also found students entering the fifth grade were more obese every year, and that this early obesity was not reversible within the school program.
"My Team California for Healthy Kids initiative will continue the fight to promote healthy eating and physical activity every day, inside and outside of schools, and throughout the community," Torlakson said. "This fight is critical, because research shows healthy and fit students perform better academically."
The California Department of Education began a series of steps in 1996 to address the increase in childhood obesity and decrease in fitness among the state's students. The PFT was implemented on an annual basis to assess the prevalence and development of overweight, obesity, and overall physical fitness in students in the fifth, seventh, and ninth grades. In 2004, the Task Force was created, met for a year, and made recommendations that were incorporated into the California Education Code.
The Task Force made three recommendations. First, increase physical exercise to a minimum of 200 minutes for kindergarten through grade five, and 400 minutes for grades six to twelve every 10 school days. Secondly, increase health education to promote healthful eating and physical activity. Thirdly, ensure the serving of healthy foods and beverages at school and prohibit high-fat, high-sugar foods and beverages. Regular audits were performed and then the PFT was used to assess any changes in obesity and fitness.