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The Obesity Epidemic: State- and District-Level Policies Are Leaving Adolescents Behind

Posted Jun 30 2010 6:26am
As a nation we are concerned about childhood/adolescent obesity and overweight, yet state and district-level policies regarding physical education, physical activity, and nutrition are significantly lacking, especially at the middle and high school level. Students at the middle and high school level have the highest rates of obesity among all children and adolescents. Judging by these facts, you would think that more state- and district-level policies would be in place to help counter the growing obesity epidemic among this age-group. However, a recent publication by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) titled “ Obesity Prevention for Middle and High Schools: Are We Doing Enough? ,” reviewed state-level and district-level policies regarding physical activity and nutrition and found a strong paradox: “while adolescents have the highest rates of obesity, are the least physically active, and consume more junk food and sugary beverages, both state- and district-level policies addressing these issues in the school environment are often more frequent and restrictive at the elementary level. In addition, in many areas, policies are simply not addressing critical components of school nutrition and physical activity at any level.”

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that children and adolescents obtain at least 30 minutes of the required 60 minutes per day of physical activity at school. Despite this guideline, NASBE’s survey found that only three states required time in minutes outside of physical education, only 20% of states had a required time and/or frequency for physical education at the high school level, and only 34% of states requiring physical education at the middle school level had a time frequency requirement. In addition, no states and only 8% of districts had a high school requirement for a percentage of class time to be spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and only 6% of states and 9% of districts had this requirement at a middle school level. Finally, 82% of states had a high school physical education requirement but 28% of these states had liberal exemption policies.

Regarding nutrition, only three states had policies which aimed at increasing access to fruits and vegetables at the middle and high school level and only three states had a policy restricting food marketing. In addition, only 22% of states required nutrition standards limiting fats, sugar, calories, and/or portion sizes in middle and high schools. 38% of states and 49% of districts had nutrition standard policies in high schools, 46% of states and 51% of districts had these standards in middle schools, and 50% of states had these standards in elementary schools. Finally, only three states and 2% of districts had policies at the middle and high school levels that prohibited all sodas (both regular and diet) and all other sugar-sweetened beverages and 30% of states only prohibited regular sugar-sweetened sodas.

All this data brings up one major question: Why aren’t states and districts pushing for more frequent and stronger policies regarding physical activity and nutrition? After all, we have a growing epidemic on our hands and children and adolescents are at the heart of it. Currently, an estimated 34% of adolescents are overweight or obese and this trend is only increasing. If widespread policies are not adopted soon these overweight children and adolescents will become overweight or obese adults, threatened by preventable chronic diseases since “overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.” While it is true that middle and high schools have many demands including increasing overall student achievement and decreasing drop-out rates, this does not mean that physical activity and nutrition should fall by the wayside. By placing physical activity and nutrition at the bottom of the priority list, schools may in fact be negatively affecting the overall success of their students since “overweight and obese students are more likely to have greater rates of absenteeism and experience more bullying and teasing, which may affect their academic performance and achievement.”

So, are we actually doing enough?

The answer is No. Policies and programs addressing middle and high schools need to be more frequent, more restrictive, and required rather than merely suggested. The promotion of physical activity and nutrition needs to be widespread at all school levels: elementary, middle, and high school. We may gasp at the obesity problem and encourage children and adolescents to exercise and eat healthfully, but if our policies do not match our message then we are failing the students we intend to serve.

Note: All direct quotes come from NASBE’s May 2010 publication, “Obesity Prevention for Middle and High Schools: Are We Doing Enough?” which can be found here .

Kathryn Burggraf
Tobacco Control Intern
Partnership for Prevention
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