Story by Mercy's Sonya Kullmann
CENTRAL, U.S. – As kids head back to school, some may soon have “obesity education” added to their class load if an American Medical Association (AMA) proposal gains speed. At a recent annual meeting of the nation’s largest professional society of doctors, physicians agreed to support legislation that would require kindergarten through 12th grade instruction on what causes obesity, what health problems can result and how to prevent it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has tripled in the United States since 1980. That means it now affects 17 percent of all American kids.
“I think education is essential,” said Liz Brake, a physical education teacher in Springfield, Mo. During her 30-year teaching career, Brake has witnessed firsthand an upward trend in obesity among students. “It has bothered me for such a long time. Children are not active outdoors outside of school. And, we live in a society where everything is so fast-paced that it’s easy to just hit the drive-through for food. Kids aren’t getting the nutrition they need.”
Dr. David Barbe, a Mercy family physician and chair-elect of the AMA’s board of trustees, agrees the current outlook is rather grim. “We have to address obesity. The AMA is focused on improving the health of our country. Obesity is the most significant underlying factor in health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.”
Alongside the AMA and others across the nation pushing for more obesity education, Mercy has stepped up its game by funding HealthTeacher, a computer-based curriculum resource reaching more than 800,000 students in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma – states with some of the highest obesity rates in the nation.
At no cost to schools, Mercy’s nearly $7 million investment provides online tools for teachers to incorporate education about obesity and other health issues into lesson plans.
“It is an investment in our children and our communities,” said Michele Marsh, Mercy director of community health and access. “It’s critical we work together to help our kids be healthy.”
Brake has used activities from HealthTeacher to make exercise more fun in her P.E. classes. “We roll the dice, and each number is assigned to a particular activity. So you have to do whatever that activity is before you roll again.”
Lorie Fisher, another Springfield teacher, has used it extensively in her fifth grade classroom. “It’s so easy. If there’s something specific I want to teach, I can go online and pull up something.” She said students really enjoy the interactive features. “We can put the food pyramid on the smart board. Kids go up to the board, choose a food and then slide that food to its spot on the pyramid.”
Fisher said something that simple seems to make an impression. “I really do hear the kids talking about nutrition in their lunches and I hope it affects them long-term. Hopefully, they go home and share what they’ve learned.”
For teachers, one of the best parts of HealthTeacher is that it follows curriculum requirements across a wide range of subjects. “We do physical activities and then measure our heart rates,” said Brake. “So the students are learning what really gets their heart pumping, and they’re doing math as they calculate the number of beats per second. You can even assign them an essay in language arts, and make it be about choosing healthy food.”
Dr. Barbe says those lessons today can extend to the future. “I really think we are in a great position to help influence students through HealthTeacher.” He believes children who are healthy now will grow to be healthier adults, putting less strain on the nation’s health care facilities. It’s one way to rein in costs, and promote a happier society.
“You can tell a difference in the kids who are active,” said Fisher. “They’re more outgoing and just happier.”
That’s why Mercy got involved. “We believe in the health of our children,” said Marsh. “We feel fortunate we can provide a tool like HealthTeacher to help them improve their lives.”
Mercy is the sixth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves more than 3 million people annually. Mercy includes 31 hospitals, nearly 300 outpatient facilities, 38,000 co-workers and 1,700 integrated physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. For more about Mercy, visit www.mercy.net.