Fitness at forefront in face of obesity rates

Fitness at forefront in face of obesity rates

Local school districts are doubling down on their efforts to keep children in shape amid the results of a new study finding 15 percent of children ages 2 to 17 in Rhode Island are overweight and an additional 20 percent are considered obese.

In Woonsocket, a combined 39 percent of young people are considered overweight or obese, while in North Smithfield, the rate is 29 percent.

The study, released in March, is the first of its kind to gather comprehensive data on obesity from 38 communities around the state. Between 2016 and 2018, Rhode Island Kids Count worked with various agencies to collect and analyze data based on community, race/ethnicity, age, gender and health insurance status.

In North Smithfield, where 16 percent of students are overweight and 13 percent are obese, according to the report, educators say they are glad to see the town ranked in the top third of the state for lowest body mass index, but plan to use the data to improve programs going forward.

“This is driving me to do better. Not that we’re doing poorly now, but if the state average is 35 percent, the state average shouldn’t be 35 percent,” said Mark LaBossiere, a physical education teacher at North Smithfield Middle School.

NSMS students receive more than twice the 100 minutes per week of physical education or health mandated by state law, spending 47 minutes each day in the two classes combined. LaBossiere thinks the amount of time dedicated to the program, combined with the curriculum and the support of district administrators, contributes to student health and sets NSMS as a leader in middle school health education in the state.

“Having that amount of time allows us to have a much more comprehensive program,” he said.

The school has received praise for its “Workout Wednesday” initiative, a program now in its seventh year that reserves one day in the week for training circuits incorporating exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups and obstacle courses instead of organized sports into physical education classes. Jeffrey Crins, also a physical education teacher at NSMS, said the program appeals to students who are not as interested in traditional athletics and teaches students skills they can use to stay in shape after middle school.

At North Smithfield High School, students follow a schedule that puts them closer to the state minimum for physical education and health, meeting every other day on average, with health classes comprising a quarter of that time. Supt. Michael St. Jean said the schedule is restricted by the number of electives and other opportunities available at the high school level, but the school tries to incorporate healthy initiatives in other ways, including the “Athlete’s Choice” program sponsored by the school’s dining services provider, Chartwells. The program seeks input from student athletes in designing a menu of healthy lunch options for active students.

Woonsocket Supt. Patrick McGee pointed to the number of opportunities for students to stay active before, during and after the school day when accounting for the city’s rankings compared with other urban centers. While Woonsocket’s children ranked slightly above the state average for body mass index, with 14 percent of children considered overweight and 25 percent considered obese, the city has the lowest rates among comparable urban communities. In Providence and Pawtucket, 43 percent of kids ages 2 to 17 are overweight or obese, according to the study, while in Central Falls, the number is 48 percent.

“I think our district, when it comes to physical fitness opportunities for our kids, we really kind of lead the state in the number of opportunities we have, so I think we’re looking to maintain that,” he said.

One of these opportunities is Build Our Kids’ Success, or BOKS, a program sponsored by the Reebok Foundation intended to get students physically active before school. Two days per week, students at all of the city’s elementary schools have the option to attend a morning fitness program with structured activities led by the school’s teachers. McGee said approximately 20 to 40 students at each school take advantage of the program, which includes equipment and stipends for teachers funded by donations from the Reebok Foundation and CVS Health.

The city also participates in Recess Rocks in R.I., a program sponsored by the Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition that creates structured, optional activities for students to participate in at recess. While some education circles advocate a “free play” approach to recess, McGee, a former physical education teacher, said Recess Rocks has the advantage of giving students equal opportunity to participate in recess activities and encourages cooperation between students. The program also promotes physical activity during a time period when students would otherwise be left to their own devices.

“It puts them on a level playing field in their abilities and their schools,” he said.

Next year, McGee said, the district hopes to continue to expand its physical education offerings at Woonsocket High School by piloting electives in areas such as aerobics or cross-training that students can take toward their graduation requirements. The district is also offering three physical education courses as part of its summer expanded learning opportunities and hopes to expand Girls on the Run, an after-school running program available at certain elementary schools, to the middle school level next year.

“If we find that there are other opportunities for our kids around physical fitness, we’re looking to do that,” he added.

According to the Rhode Island Kids Count report, children whose body mass index is in the 95th percentile for gender and age are considered obese, while children with a body mass index between the 85th and 95th percentiles are considered overweight or at risk for obesity.

Comments

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