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Wells: Invest in wellness now or pay costs later

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia must invest now in programs to promote wellness and physical fitness in children -- or pay the long-term health-care costs for another generation of overweight adults, a state senator told colleagues Tuesday.

"It is going to take an investment in dollars, and a commitment from the governor and Legislature," Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said during an interim committee meeting on student wellness.

"It's an investment now to bring these numbers down, or we're going to pay over the years for obesity issues," he said, referring to an update on childhood obesity figures presented by West Virginia University professor Eloise Elliott.

WVU's CARDIAC program has been conducting statewide health screenings of kindergarten, second-, fifth-, and eighth-grade students statewide since 1998, and the 2012 results found that 46.5 percent of all fifth-graders in the state are overweight or obese.

"By fifth grade, about 50 percent of our kids are overweight or obese and have at least one risk factor for heart disease," Elliott told the committee.

She said the causes are not surprising: Lack of physical activity, too much sedentary time in front of television or computer screens, and an unhealthy diet including too many sugary soft drinks.

"If we could do one thing to reduce childhood obesity, we would get rid of all soft drinks," she said.

While the numbers are discouraging, Elliott said there are some encouraging signs, noting that the percentages of overweight and obese fifth-graders have leveled off after peaking at 49.6 percent in 2009.

There's also been increased emphasis on physical activity and physical education in public schools, spurred in part by passage of the West Virginia Healthy Lifestyles Act in 2005.

However, a WVU evaluation of the impact of the law found that 31 percent of elementary schools and 8 percent of middle schools were unable to comply with PE requirements in the act, either because they lacked adequate staff, or lacked adequate facilities, or both.

"We're not where we need to be, but I think ... the stars are aligning where we can really tackle this thing," said Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician in Madison.

However, Delegate Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, said he's concerned that even if schools provide healthy meals and fitness programs, children are out of school 185 days a year.

"The families really have to get involved," he said. "We really have to look at programs to educate families."

"That is an issue, and it's something we certainly try to address when we talk about changing the culture," Elliott said.

Wells concurred, noting, "We can start the kids down the road on the culture of fitness, so they can educate their parents as well."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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