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Working Fitness into the New School Year

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For years, Jan Bingham has watched excess weight take a toll on her son. His peers can be brutal, sometimes breaking the boy's spirit with taunts and jeers. It's heart wrenching for mother and son.

But last year, when her boy's weight reached its highest point yet, spurring Bingham to seek medical help, she learned that his heart faced a bigger threat. At age 14, Bingham's son has high cholesterol.

"I thought, 'Man, he's so young' and, 'This is serious,' " said Bingham, a nurse who knows elevated blood fat levels promote plaque buildup and could result in heart disease early in her son's life. "Cholesterol is not something you can hope will go away with age."

As the rate of childhood obesity in the nation rises, Bingham's boy is one of a growing number of children showing early signs of heart disease, some as young as 5. Nearly 9 million American youth ages 6 to 19 are overweight, increasing their risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Now, as parents find themselves once again immersed in the time-crunched school year, experts have some advice: Before giving in to convenience foods and sedentary habits, think of those little hearts.

"It's going to be bad," said Dr. Susan Spoerke, a pediatrician, referring to the nation's future health status. "It's going to be expensive, and without some major societal changes in attitude, this next generation is not going to have the same longevity as their parents' generation."

Cardiovascular disease is already the No. 1 killer in this country, claiming nearly 2,600 lives a day - more than from all cancers combined.

The National Institutes of Health recently recommended routine cholesterol screenings for obese children beginning at age 2. Blood pressure checks for all kids should begin at age 3.

Doctors turn first to diet and exercise when advising parents on lowering heart-disease risk in kids. All parents can help protect their children's hearts by heeding the advice, they say.

Bingham is placing her biggest bet on football. "I have real high expectations," Bingham said of the effect she hopes her son's newfound sport will have on his health. In just three weeks, he has noticed his pants fit better, she said.

"He's also going to be riding his bike to school, which is about two miles away," his mom said. "We're really trying to work in more physical activity."

Boosting exercise is crucial in today's electronics-focused generation, especially for kids with cholesterol problems, doctors say.

Studies have found that, even in people who remain overweight, physical activity can help improve total cholesterol levels, mostly by boosting "good" cholesterol, said Dr. Nancy Krebs, a pediatrician.

Parents need to zap the TV and Nintendo from daily routines, Krebs said. Kids under 2 should watch no television at all, she said.

Such sedentary activities should take less than two hours of an older kid's day, and if parents are directing their children toward televisions and computer games for their personal convenience, they need to consider the consequences, said Dr. Michelle Booth, a pediatrician.

"Because the kids are quiet and doing something, we let them (TVs and electronic games) be our baby-sitters," she said.

Bingham's son, a high school student who is about 60 pounds overweight and asked that his name not be used, said he knows football is going to improve his health, but that's not his primary focus.

"My big goal is to look better," said the freshman. He doesn't hesitate when asked about the hardest part of being overweight: the blow to his self-esteem. He also wants to be faster, he said.

"Like when I do running drills in football and stuff, I'm like bigger than most of the kids, so it's harder for me to do, and I don't go as fast. It's getting easier and easier every time," he said.

© 2003, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire

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