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Let’s move! Faith groups help promote campaign on kids’ health Mary Jacobs, Jan 14, 2011
Kids enjoy healthy snacks and active exercise as part of the Memphis, Tenn.-based Church Health Center's program tackling childhood obesity.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
Watch the kids at the Church Health Center in Memphis, Tenn., and you’d think they’re just plain having fun: running around the gym, enjoying indoor picnics, learning to cook.
However, all this fun has a serious purpose: helping to stem childhood obesity, a growing problem that experts predict could one day overwhelm the U.S. health care system.
First Lady Michelle Obama would like more churches and community groups to follow the Church Health Center’s lead. Last year, she launched Let’s Move, a comprehensive program aiming to “solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation,” and urged leaders in the faith community to get involved.
In a teleconference with 4,500 faith and community leaders in November, Mrs. Obama said faith groups “know how to empower folks . . . how to inspire them to take charge of their lives and make positive changes.”
But how can churches get started? And does the United Methodist Church really belong in the fat-fighting business?
Absolutely, says Dr. Scott Morris, an ordained United Methodist minister, physician and founder of the Church Health Center in Memphis. “Childhood obesity is the No. 1 health care problem in America,” said Dr. Morris. “It’s about our children and our future.”
'Ticking time bomb'
At the February 2010 launch of Let’s Move, Mrs. Obama told attendees, “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.” Indeed, nearly one in three young Americans is overweight or obese.
Obesity rates have doubled among children and tripled among adolescents in the past three decades. Many warn that’s a ticking time bomb.
“If we don’t succeed in reversing this epidemic,” stated a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “we are in danger of raising the first generation of American children who will live sicker and die younger than their parents’ generation.”
What’s more, the costs of medical care for obesity-related disease and the resulting loss in productivity are likely to be staggering. According to a 2009 study of national costs attributed to overweight and obesity for patients of all ages, the tab for medical expenses was $147 billion in 2008—about half of them paid by Medicaid and Medicare.
Those figures will only get worse as obese children grow up to become obese adults.
“I think it’s literally going to overwhelm us,” says Dr. Sandra Hassink, who testified before Congress last year as chair of the obesity leadership group for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Overweight kids suffer greater risks for diabetes, heart disease, asthma, sleep apnea, depression and other problems.
“Think of obesity as an accelerator for disease,” Dr. Hassink says. “Until recently, we called Type 2 diabetes ‘adult onset’ because we never saw it in children. Now, it’s showing up in kids as young as 12.”
But obesity also weighs down the mind and spirit as well as the body. Obese kids have negative body images and poor self-esteem. Many become targets for bullying. Obese girls are at higher risk for teen pregnancy.
“It’s about the lack of hope in the child’s life,” Dr. Morris said. “And if the church is not in the hope business, then I’m missing something.”
Where to start
So what can churches do?
The short answer: “Help kids to eat better and get moving,” says Kimberly Baker, manager of child life education and movement at the Church Health Center.
At the Church Health Center’s wellness facility, parents can drop off their children while they exercise or participate in educational activities.
The kids exercise in “Moving and Grooving” classes, sample healthy food at indoor “carpet picnics” or learn to prepare healthy foods. For preschool aged children, there’s “Alphabet Appetite,” in which kids learn a new letter and try a new food each day, working from A (apples) to Z (zucchini sticks dipped in ranch dressing.)
“We’re trying to expand the kids’ palates, one week at a time, one food at a time,” Ms. Baker said. “We try to take a positive, non-judgmental approach. We teach the children that our bodies are our temples, and we need to do our best to take care of the bodies that God has given us.”
Ms. Baker listened in on the conference call with Mrs. Obama and now encourages churches to sign up at the website www.letsmove.gov. “It’s easy to do, it’s free and the website gives you a lot of ideas that you may not think of yourself,” she said.
Children in low-income neighborhoods face additional challenges relating to obesity, she said. Many residents of urban neighborhoods rely on convenience stores, which typically sell high-calorie, low-nutrition processed foods and few items of fresh produce.
Also, many families who live in high-crime neighborhoods don’t feel safe sending their kids outside to play. Churches can help by opening their buildings to provide safe spaces for children to play, says the Rev. Margret Powell, pastor of Solid Rock UMC in Philadelphia.
“Kids don’t go outside to play anymore,” said Ms. Powell, a former registered nurse. “They don’t even have phys ed in school anymore.” Solid Rock opens its doors to the community to do just that, with gospel line dancing classes in the fellowship hall and a basketball ministry led by her husband. In 2009, the church piloted a six-week, anti-obesity program for children; Ms. Powell is now seeking grants to start a more ambitious after-school program that would provide tutoring, arts, exercise and healthy meals.
Adult church members and leaders can also help fight childhood obesity by improving their own health habits. Ms. Baker suggests that churches start with simple steps: Expand the usual donut-and-coffee menu for Sunday morning gatherings with fruits and veggies, or add an exercise class or walking Bible study to the menu of weekly activities.
Be the change you want to see, Ms. Baker says, and research shows that kids will usually follow.
Lee Burdine, a member of First UMC in Columbus, Miss., witnessed that dynamic with the annual conference’s Amazing Pace program, in which clergy and other staffers are challenged to track their activity levels using pedometers.
Even though the program targets adults, Mr. Burdine is seeing a positive trickle-down effect as kids in congregations adopt healthier habits, too.
“Clergy are natural leaders in their communities,” he said. “Once participants become more aware of their activity levels, they become more active. They start sleeping better, their energy levels go up, they look healthier and that leads to a conversation with members of the congregation.”
Whether by joining the Let’s Move program or starting anti-obesity programs of their own design, Ms. Powell thinks every United Methodist congregation ought to consider itself in the health-promoting business.
“The healing of the mind, body and spirit is the call of every Christian,” she said. “The gospel was never just about the spirit.”