Researchers at UC Davis recently published a study that found obesity and fitness levels have stabilized in California schools.
Melanie Aryana, M.D., Zhongmin Li, Ph.D., and William Bommer, M.D. were the co-authors of the study.
“The increase of obesity in fifth, seventh, and ninth graders slowed down compared to previous decades,” Aryana said in e-mail. “However, students entering fifth grade were more obese each year and this early obesity was not reversible within the school program.”
As part of the effort beginning in 1996 to address the growing issue of obesity, the California Department of Education (CDE) created a Physical Fitness Test (PFT) to be administered to fifth, seventh and ninth graders annually.
In 2004, Bommer served on a task force that analyzed the results of the PFT statewide and made recommendations to the CDE.
The task force led to changes such as the increase in time allotted for physical activity during school, improved health education, healthier school lunches and regular audits to ensure schools complied with the aforementioned changes.
The findings of the PFT were studied between 2003 and 2008 to monitor the results of the recommended changes.
“Since this is an observational study, obesity and fitness changes cannot be directly attributed to any of the interventions,” Aryana said.
“Lower compliance rates reduced any possible benefits. Complete data was available for most but not all students.”
PFT is one of the only mechanisms the state has to monitor changes in the weight and physical fitness of young students. However, in the face of recent budget cuts, PFT may face elimination.
“The data collected through PFT is the only objective data source collected on body composition that’s not self reported,” said Alecia Sanchez, policy director for the Center of Public Health Advocacy. “It enables policymakers to see trends and formulate interventions to address them.”
“The initiation of additional interventions in school nutrition and physical activity programs that might be required to improved students’ health could not be well monitored without the student fitness testing,” Aryana said.
The elimination, said Tina Jung, information officer for the CDE, has yet to be decided.
“I don’t believe the governor called for the elimination of fitness testing but to find another funding stream for it,” Jung said. “Physical fitness is very much a part of his initiative for schools.”
Whatever happens to PFT, it is clear that though increases in obesity rates may have slowed, there is still much work to be done statewide, according to the study.
“We have our own study that we released late last year that shows a decline in the obesity rate statewide, but there are parts of the state that aren’t enjoying those successes,” Sanchez said. “Some districts have experienced increases in obesity.”
“The UCD study showed we’re at a critical turning point,” Jung said. “Obesity has started to stall. We’ve stopped going up the mountain, but we haven’t started to go back down.”
Further plans to address the issue are presently in the works.
“We are currently working with the CDE to develop a plan where students, volunteers and parents could help further alleviate obesity in school children,” Aryana said .
More details of the plan Aryana mentioned will be available next week.
EINAT GILBOA can be reached email@example.com.