By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MASON - A healthy Steve Tan now moves lighter, and happier, through his teenage world.
Junior Lauren Baker, 16, works out at Mount Healthy High School.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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The Mason High School senior first jettisoned his couch-potato lifestyle of too much TV, video games and fast food, lost 20 pounds and continues to work out daily to lose more.
You won't find a health club membership card in the 17-year-old's pocket, and he doesn't go home to pricey workout equipment. Steve, and thousands of area students like him, are starting to tone up and slim down in a place where many young people previously only exercised their minds: at Greater Cincinnati schools.
Spurred by recent health studies - the American Academy of Pediatricians says U.S. childhood obesity rates have doubled in 20 years - more schools are upgrading their workout facilities and overall health programs to battle the problem. And thanks in part to a new national fitness program, which is sponsored by the U.S. military and private corporations, and which provides millions of dollars of exercise equipment to schools, the neighborhood school now is a new front line for American students in their battle against bulge.
"All schools everywhere are trying to address the obesity issue and trying to find ways to keep kids fit," said Jill Bruder, athletic director at Indian Hill schools.
But it's tough reversing decades of de-emphasizing physical education in many American schools. For years in Ohio schools, and those in other states, physical education has been an elective class and is no longer a requirement. Only one state, Illinois, has mandatory physical education for all grades.
In April, Arkansas education officials were so alarmed by the growing girth of their students they pushed for and received legislative approval of a state law that requires public schools to test and record a student's body mass on their regular report cards this school year.
At Mason, students are required to take two trimesters of physical education during their four years at the modern Warren County school, but Steve voluntarily has taken gym class every trimester since his freshman year. Classroom instruction on the evils of fat-laden fast foods has him more nutrition-savvy and substituting healthier foods - made easier by having more healthy choices in the school cafeteria
"It's helped change my life and keeps me motivated," he said recently after a short workout in one of the school's weight rooms.
And increasingly, Greater Cincinnati schools are working to help other overweight students.
Mount Healthy High School was one of the first Ohio schools last year to sign up for the nonprofit National School Fitness Foundation program that gives free exercise equipment to participating American schools in exchange for years of detailed student health data compiled and reported by schools to NSFF officials.
The high school received $150,000 in state-of-the-art exercise equipment for students who are taking physical education classes, and veteran athletic director Tina Tuck said the program has helped her entice and motivate a growing segment of previously physically inactive students.
"Kids are liking this because they get to see their progress on a computer screen. The technology part attracts a lot of kids who normally aren't too motivated to work out," Tuck said.
"There is no cost to the school, and the students get access to some great equipment."
Mount Healthy junior Lauren Baker pauses between workout stations to praise the school's new emphasis on student health, which includes a "Food, Fun and Fitness" class on healthy lifestyles. She said the new exercise equipment and health classes are especially helpful in promoting a healthy body image rather than attempting to be skinny through starvation diets.
The NSFF's program also has meant $315,000 worth of new exercise equipment at McAuley High School, an all-girls Catholic school in College Hill, and Assistant Principal Nicki Brainard likes to describe the electronics-laden fitness center as "our James Bond weight room."
"It's amazing," Brainard said. "This is one of the biggest things to happen for student fitness in years."
At Beechwood schools, officials have drastically revamped their food offerings to remove many of the nutritionally vapid culprits that are helping to fatten up America's youth.
Beechwood Superintendent Fred Bassett said schools in his Kenton County district have removed all sugar-flavored drinks, replacing them with milk-based beverages and those with 100 percent juice. No candy bars are offered, but a daily salad bar is, along with fresh fruit and vegetables.
"In physical education classes, the importance of eating the right foods is discussed in detail along with avoiding too many fat foods," Bassett said.
At Loveland High School, senior Betsy Repaske said the cafeteria is much better this school year.
"Our salad bar improved, and a new case of healthy foods was added. ... I think most people appreciated the healthier foods ... and there were now options that weren't drenched in fat," she said.
While the means of combating obesity can vary from school to school, the reasons cited by school officials for the problem are almost universal.
"Children spend too much time indoors in front of an electronic screen either watching TV, playing computer games or playing electronic games on TV," Beechwood's Bassett said.
Mount Healthy's Tuck agrees, but also blames parents.
"Kids will do what they are allowed to do. I'd have to put it back on the parents. They should be forcing their kids to go outside and play like we used to," she said, adding that schools also can't be expected to solve a societal problem such as obesity, especially "when we only see these kids for 90 minutes, three times a week."
Nearby, Lauren Baker finishes her exercise and says, "We have a real good program now, but it's still up to us kids to use it."
Health experts weigh in
Youth obesity has been linked with health problems later in life, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes.
According to a recent American Academy of Pediatricians study, about 15 percent, or about 9 million Americans ages 6-19, are overweight enough to be labeled obese. The academy reports that childhood obesity rates have doubled in 20 years.
A 2000 study by the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System, established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that about 12.5 percent of Americans ages 6-17 were seriously overweight, a percentage that has more than doubled in the past 30 years.
New program fights fat in schools
The National School Fitness Foundation was formed in 2000 and is a nonprofit organization - financed by the U.S. military and private corporations - designed to fight youth obesity in America.
The NSFF provides millions of dollars of high-tech strength and aerobics training equipment to public and private schools around the nation at no cost in exchange for those schools agreeing to track health-related data.
As of June there were about 300 participating schools in 17 states, and in Ohio the Mount Healthy school district was one of the first to sign up for the program.
No Northern Kentucky or Southeastern Indiana schools are participating, but other districts that have signed up include Cincinnati Public Schools, Middletown, Talawanda, Monroe, Fairfield, Lebanon, Indian Hill, North College Hill and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
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