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Healthy life an 'uphill battle' for some children

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dr. Dan Foster was open and honest with a group of elementary students at the YMCA on Monday while discussing healthy choices. Foster even told the children about the heart attack he suffered several years ago.

"And I thought I was living a healthy life," the former member of the West Virginia Senate told the children, who were participating in a "Summer in January" event dedicated to fitness and nutrition.

But there were some details he didn't want to get into with the young students, such as the state's startling child obesity and diabetes rates.

"When I was in med school over 40 years ago, we never saw [Type 2 diabetes] in kids. We called it adult-onset diabetes. Now, we see an immense number of kids with it. It's just really sad. I didn't want to get into it too much with them," he said after the event.

In 2011, more than 25 percent of West Virginia's fourth-graders had high blood pressure and high cholesterol, with nearly 30 percent of those children classifying as obese, according to a West Virginia University study.

Foster was at the YMCA to talk to students about the 5-2-1-0 health initiative, which recommends that kids eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, decrease their daily TV and computer time to two hours or less, engage in at least one hour of physical activity and consume zero sugary drinks.

"When I grew up, it seemed like no one was overweight. When I was your age, I walked to school, and playing outside was my only form of entertainment. I ate a home-cooked meal with my family every day, that my mom made," he told the students. "Nowadays, it's not like that. It's not that it's worse than my generation -- it's just more difficult to be healthy. Your culture makes it hard for you, but we're trying to make it easier."

Foster said society has made it "terribly complicated" for today's children to understand the importance of healthy food and exercise, with fast-food restaurants and a dependence on technology continuing to increase. But recent efforts have gotten health information into schools, teaching students healthy lifestyles at a very young age, regardless of whether they're learning it at home, he said.

"As long as they're exposed to good, nutritional meals early on and there is some consistent, credible messenger who helps them understand they need to get regular exercise, kids will see that by doing simple things, they'll feel better, look better and perform better in school," Foster said. "They'll have more fulfilling lives in almost every case.

"The same thing is happening here to an extent that happened with the country's past efforts. Kids were the ones telling their parents not to smoke. They were the ones reminding Mom and Dad to put on their seat belts," he said. "Hopefully, now they'll be the ones getting them to eat healthy."

At the top of Foster's list to promote healthier lifestyles is legislation to curb the consumption of soft drinks, and he suggests increasing the prices of sugary drinks and dropping the cost on water and other healthy beverages.

"If there's one thing we can do, it's to get [children] to stop drinking soft drinks. People don't realize how that has dramatically changed calorie consumption in the last 30 years," he said. "We've made various efforts to get them out of schools, but we need to work on some general public policy. We're trying to figure out how to do that."

One of those "credible messengers" that Foster says West Virginia kids need is Brandon Perry, a 25-year-old youth counselor at the YMCA who encourages the students in his after-school programs to eat healthy snacks, stay away from the TV and play more sports.

"For some of these kids, it's an uphill battle. They're going to have to be the ones to take it to their parents because their parents aren't leading healthy lifestyles. I only get to see them about three hours a day, but I hope they're building healthy habits," Perry said. "The best thing you can do is lead by example. That's why I don't sit and watch them play -- I get out there and play with them."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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