Editor's note: This is part 3 in a series from our health policy coordinator, Lauren Dimitry, who is reflecting on what Texas can do to reverse childhood obesity and get more Texas children the healthy start they need. Read part 1 of the series here and part 2 here.
When I think about the challenges and opportunities associated with defeating childhood obesity, I often think about schools. Texas schools reach more kids than any program or event out there. Schools provide daily opportunities for growth, development and learning. They reach Texas children for 180 days every single year and they represent an incredible opportunity to inform a child about the importance of nutrition and activity. In addition, research tells us that nutrition and physical activity are consistent with academic goals. Fit kids perform better, miss less school, have fewer behavioral challenges, and are more likely to grow-up to be healthy, working adults.
So what are the challenges? I was giving a talk the other day about what the Texas Legislature has directed schools to do to address childhood obesity, and I got a very insightful question that highlights our major challenge. I was asked "Where do we draw the line between education and health?" My answer was consistent with what I have repeated many times in testimony with lawmakers--that as child health advocates we focus on schools when particular health issues, like obesity, interfere with a child's ability to learn and impede the work of our schools to help students achieve their full academic potential.
Research shows us that by improving fitness we can improve test scores. In testimony, I say this again and again. But to me that is only one of many, many reasons we must address issues like obesity in school. When it comes to nutrition and physical activity we don't draw a line between education and health because we can't. It's not a real choice. We can't separate a child's mind and body. In thinking that we can, we undermine our goal of preparing students for future success, and we miss a significant opportunity to curtail a public health crisis.
Unlike a disease that needs to be managed by a physician or an illness that needs to be treated in a hospital, nutrition and physical activity are habits--they are learned behaviors. And they are challenged every day by environments that encourage inactivity and promote unhealthy, fast food. We know this. To not educate a child about this runs directly counter to their future success. What can be worse, is that, at times, we not only fail to educate children about these issues, we simultaneously reinforce unhealthy behaviors by promoting sugary drinks in school vending machines, underfunding schools, and cutting back on physical activity requirements. All things we'll be looking to change in the upcoming legislative session. If you want to read about what happened in schools last Session related to obesity check out our report here.
Immediately after giving that talk on the Texas Legislature and obesity prevention, I was at a fitness center and noticed the bricks on the wall that the coaches let participants paint. Some are painted with specific fitness goals or a certain weight someone wants to lift, but one brick in particular jumped out at me that day. It read, "Don't regret the results you didn't get with the work you didn't do."
The truth is we have some work to do, but therein lies the opportunity. We can ensure that we are properly equipping students with the information they need, providing them opportunities to be active, and creating school environments that promote and support healthy eating habits. It's just time that the debate shift from why do this to how do we do this? I know we won't regret the results.
Many districts have programs well under way to fight obesity and enhance coordinated school health. Issues? Challenges? Successes? We'd love to hear from you, as we set our obesity prevention legislative agenda for the upcoming session.