Local officials combat rising obesity rates


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National obesity levels are on the rise.

And because Iowa has the 20th highest obesity rate in the United States, according to a recent report conducted by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, local officials and organizations are taking steps to ensure children remain active through recreational and educational programs.

"The study kind of ranks us and lets us know where we are on the trend," said Doug Beardsley, the director of Johnson County Public Health Department. "We're getting more obese, and that's further evidence that something needs to be addressed."

And though Iowa only ranks 46th in childhood obesity, experts said parents' habits often trickle down to their children, causing mental, physical, and financial problems later in life.

"[Childhood obesity] has effects that reach their entire life from their education to emotional well-being," said Albert Lang, the communications manager for Trust for America's Health.

Experts said childhood obesity can be avoided through exercising, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and attending programs that encourage children to not lead a sedentary lifestyles — something Iowa City has begun to focus on in recent years.

And while the Iowa City School District has tackled children's eating habits through its Farm to School program — aimed at connecting students with local farmers to provide children with knowledge and experience with local, healthy food — the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center, 220 S. Gilbert St., is spearheading a new youth exercise project.

The program is funded by an $18,000 grant from WellMark Blue Cross Blue Shield, said Chad Dyson, the superintendent of the Recreation Center.

"The mission of the program is to help fight childhood obesity and get the kids active," he said.

The program is still in the planning stages, but Dyson said officials are excited about the new program, and he has seen an increase in childhood obesity during his time at the center.

"Nationwide, [obesity is] probably the No. 1 health concern facing adolescents and kids these days," he said.

Children who are obese at a young age can face chronic disease, including diabetes and some cancers, Lang said. These issues can also affect one's wallet, because health-care bills related to such illnesses can be expensive and, at times, some people with obesity may not be able to work.

"[The obese] put [themselves] on the path to being dependent," Lang said.

Officials want to extend education initiatives to adults as well.

One of the cluster hirings the University of Iowa announced last week is focused on research positions in obesity.

And earlier this month, the Johnson County Public Health Department was selected as a host site for the AmeriCorps HealthCorps Project. And though the county has had an obesity task force for three years, Beardsley said, this project will supply officials with an individual who will help the center reduce obesity and other preventable diseases in an organized matter.

"There is a lot going on," Beardsley said, and the project will likely accelerate some of the ideas the center has had. "We're trying to ensure there is a coordinated effort and we're not falling over each other."

But, Beardsley said, programs such as these only work if people actually attend, and parents need to be educated on how to help fight childhood obesity because they play a big role in their children's lives.

"A lot of education efforts have to be on families' eating habits," he said. "The focus can't be all on the child."

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