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With government statistics showing that 15% of kids, or about 9 million, are overweight -- triple the number in 1980 -- it's clear that the USA has a children's health epidemic on its hands.
What's not clear is how to solve the problem.
No single approach, whether it's requiring physical education classes or eliminating soft drinks from schools, will erase the problem, say public health experts who, along with Surgeon General Richard Carmona, will launch a pilot program today aimed at reducing and preventing childhood obesity.
Get Kids In Action, the $4 million program directed by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and underwritten by Gatorade, targets physicians, community organizations and families in a drive to make kids more physically active.
According to a UNC survey, 32% of parents are concerned about their children becoming overweight.
''Too many parents think that the answer to helping overweight kids is getting them to eat less, when getting them active, not just sitting around watching TV, is an important part of the story,'' says Steven Zeisel, chairman of UNC's department of nutrition.
Get Kids in Action will study and evaluate approaches to reducing obesity by:
* Developing education tools to help physicians better identify children at risk of becoming obese.
* Making health counseling available to families.
* Enhancing opportunities for community groups to facilitate physical activities, such as providing supervised play areas, bike paths or transportation to events.
* Promoting community resources to health providers so they can make more effective recommendations to patients.
''Too often a doctor finds a child at risk of obesity, but then does what about getting him active?'' Zeisel says. By working with schools, community centers and civic leaders, ''we can give physicians some place to refer that child.''
Get Kids in Action also will tap into UNC's pool of student athletes and ask them to meet with elementary and middle school students and serve as role models.
At the end of the three-year, North Carolina-based program, it's hoped that the findings will be used in a community health care tool kit distributed throughout the USA.
''One of the nice things about the funding is that it will give grants to communities (in the pilot program) for ideas they have,'' Zeisel says. ''This will enable us to research innovative ideas that we may not have even thought of.''
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