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Opinion: Solving Childhood Obesity Requires Movement

By:  Brenda Fitzgerald, MD Apr 17, 2013
Brenda Fitzgerald, MD

Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., is Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and State Health Officer.

We are facing an epidemic among our children in Georgia – obesity. The data is undeniable, and the message cannot be ignored. We must get our students moving, not only during the school day, but also after. Physical activity means higher test scores, increased attention in class and a healthier student population.

Our recent evaluation of nearly a million children in Georgia revealed that only 16 percent could complete five basic measures of physical fitness, and 20 percent could not pass a single one of these tests. We’re not talking about trying out for the football team or preparing for the Olympic Games. We’re talking about walking a mile and touching your toes.

In my state, 43 percent of children are at an unhealthy weight. Obesity-related hospitalizations among our children ages two to 19 years have increased 338 percent over the recent 11-year period from 1999 to 2010.

In his book Spark, Dr. John Ratey of Harvard University explores the connection between exercise and the brain’s performance. Dr. Ratey highlights the adaptability of the brain as an organ and its responses to repeated stimulation and activation. He concludes that even moderate exercise will supercharge mental circuits to enhance learning capabilities and improve memory.

My state likely resembles your state: Only about half of middle and high school students in Georgia meet the CDC recommendations for physical activity. More than 44 percent of our middle school students and 39 percent of high school students watch television for three or more hours on a school day. And only 17 percent of high school students in Georgia consume the prescribed five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Our children, and yours, need to start eating better – and moving more.

Youths exercising

As part of the Georgia SHAPE initiative, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Department of Education have created Power Up for 30, a voluntary program encouraging every elementary school in the state to include an additional 30 minutes of physical activity each day.

In Georgia, we’re working together under the umbrella of Georgia SHAPE – an initiative of Governor Nathan Deal to increase movement and improve nutrition to reduce childhood obesity. As part of the Georgia SHAPE initiative, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Department of Education have created Power Up for 30, a voluntary program that encourages every elementary school in Georgia to include an additional 30 minutes of physical activity each day. This physical activity is in addition to structured physical education classes – not a replacement – and can be led by any teacher. Our goal is clear: 30 minutes of physical activity – every day, every school, every child in Georgia.

And what are the long-term effects of not moving? Let’s begin with diabetes, a chronic disease that often leads to blindness, nerve damage, kidney failure and even death. Diabetes causes more deaths each year in the U.S. than breast cancer and AIDS combined. By the time we reach age 65, CDC statistics indicate half of us will have diabetes or pre-diabetes. And yet, all too often, we overlook the most important fact: overwhelmingly, the vast majority of cases are entirely preventable if we encourage movement or exercise. And that's precisely what we’re doing in Georgia at www.georgiashape.org.

Our program is large. We’re starting small. One child at a time. One step at a time. One healthy meal at a time.

We expect big results: healthier children and a healthier future for Georgia.

Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., serves as the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and State Health Officer. A board-certified Obstetrician-Gynecologist and a Fellow in Anti-Aging Medicine, Fitzgerald directs various state public health programs and leads the state’s 18 public health districts and 159 county health departments. Fitzgerald previously served on the board and as president of the Georgia OB-GYN Society and she worked as a healthcare policy advisor with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Paul Coverdell. She has served as Chairman of the Board for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and remains a Senior Fellow.