Blair Smith and Aynslee Kahley supplement their school workouts with hours of exercise each week at the Trainers Fitness Institute.
Fifteen-year-old Blair started playing T-ball when she was 4, moved on to basketball a couple of years later and has added tennis and track to her athletic repertoire at Tattnall Square Academy.
Even with all that activity, losing weight is still a primary fitness goal.
“I’ve always wanted to be thinner, but I know I’m healthy,” Blair said before balancing on rubber floor cushions as she lifted weights to build her core strength.
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She started working out earlier this month in Aynslee’s father’s north Macon gym.
Rick Kahley leads his daughter and Blair through their workouts.
“Quicker, quicker, quicker. Quick feet,” he calls out as 13-year-old Aynslee tiptoes over obstacles in the parking lot.
The majority of Kahley’s clients are adults, but the institute caters to student athletes also.
“Most are overweight. Most of them are trying to get to where they can play like the rest of the kids,” Kahley said. “Being active is not the only issue. We have to watch what we eat.”
Move outside of the city and the challenges only loom larger.
Community Health Works is leading a three-year focus on obesity and its related health conditions. The Central Georgia Regional Health Summit began last fall in Bibb, Crawford, Houston, Jones, Monroe, Peach and Twiggs counties.
In a series of summits and local gatherings, a team of more than 100 professionals is learning that a smorgasbord of solutions will be needed to fight the fat on a local level.
“In each community it’s different,” said Greg Dent, president of Community Health Works. “In some rural counties, it might be a lack of sidewalks or access to parks and good foods. Some communities only have one grocery store.”
In February, first lady Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move! campaign to solve the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation.
Nearly 32 percent of American youngsters ages 2 to 19 were overweight or obese in 2007-2008, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
By 2030, the first lady wants to return the obesity rate to 5 percent, where it was before it began to increase in the late ’70s.
She told WebMD the Magazine it was a nudge from her daughter’s pediatrician that helped her change their family lifestyle a couple of years ago. She added more home-cooked meals instead of calling the pizza guy or hitting the drive-through.
Georgia’s latest Department of Human Resources study of third-graders from 2005 showed that one in four students was considered obese, which means grossly overweight. The rates were slightly higher for girls, black children and poor children in rural communities.
Battling the bulge
Current projections show that today’s children may not live longer than their parents do.
Dr. Seth Bush, a Macon pediatrician, finds that trend hard to digest.
“Just like the Generation X label from years ago, this should be called Generation XXL for extra extra large because it’s a real problem,” Bush said.
Overweight children are at a much greater risk for heart disease, diabetes and other health complications.
Bush calculates the body mass index of all his patients to determine whether a child is overweight or obese. But he discourages placing too much emphasis on BMI numbers and guidelines that don’t take into consideration that muscle weighs more than fat and can skew results for an exceptionally muscular child.
“Obesity is a visual thing,” Bush said. “You know it when you see it.”
What surprises him is how little parents know about making healthy food choices for their children.
“It’s shocking the lack of knowledge of good nutrition,” Bush said.
He follows the 5-2-1-0 plan from the American Academy of Pediatrics to keep a child’s weight under control.
Children should be eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.Screen time in front of the computer, television, video games and other visual media should be limited to two hours a day. One hour of daily exercise is recommended, and zero calories in a child’s diet should come from sugar-sweetened beverages, which includes fruit juice when a child needs to lose weight, Bush said. It is much better for children to eat a piece of fruit and drink water as fiber in the fruit can help the body process the sugar more slowly.
When counseling patients in his office, Bush encourages parents to begin with one of the guidelines and add others one at a time.
He also suggests the “traffic light” method of eating. Red foods such as potato chips and high-calorie sweets should only be consumed on rare occasions. Yellow foods are to be eaten with caution but include whole grains and fruits. Green foods include most vegetables and are all you can eat — and as often as needed.
“A serving size of green beans is 17 calories,” Bush said. “You burn more calories eating them than are in them.”
Because your stomach reacts to fullness, you can fill up on lower calorie and more nutrient-rich foods.
“People feel like you need to go hungry to lose weight, but you have to make the right choices,” he said. “But on the flip side, you don’t want anything to be off limits because a child will only crave it.”
Giving an option of two or more healthy items will make children feel like they still have a choice, he said.
In a perfect world, Bush would want families of all his patents eating at the dinner table every night. He realizes that eating out is often a necessity with busy schedules.
“If you do go to a fast-food restaurant, plan ahead what you’re going to eat because it’s a lot of impulse buying when you see the milkshake there,” he said.
When buying big bags of snacks, Bush suggests breaking them up into individual portions in resealable storage bags. Serving sizes are normally much smaller than most people realize. Switching from whole milk to skim or low-fat milk can be another easy way to save calories, he said.
For Bush, the responsibility for a child’s diet rests with the parents.
“The thing that gets me, kids aren’t buying the groceries,” he said. “The parents are the ones buying the unhealthy foods.”
Lessons to learn
Changes in the school environment also have added to the growing obesity problem.
“Academic rigors are such that they cut out P.E., and school lunches are not the healthiest meals either,” Bush said. “One-third of a child’s vegetables are french fries and iceberg lettuce. Both are nutritionally void of any benefits.”
Violet Poe, a former Hutchings Career Center history teacher, used to watch overweight students lumber through the halls as they changed classes. Stops at the vending machines only loaded them up with more junk food.
“That really got me,” Poe said. “I wanted them to feel better and stop huffing and puffing.”
In 2006, she started an after-school fitness club to teach the students about diet, nutrition and exercise. About two dozen students signed up for the 50+ Goal Club, designed to help the teens lose about five pounds a month for a total of 50 pounds by the end of the school year.
“When I grew up, I was always outside racing, bicycling, jumping on a pogo stick or something all the time,” Poe said.
Her mother taught health, science and home economics and always set three nutritious meals on the table every day. Poe realized her own students weren’t learning the same lessons.
“Maybe someone never taught them you don’t eat potato chips for breakfast,” she said. “You can get them out playing ball, but you have to go beyond that. You’ve got to talk to them and educate them.”
When Poe left the Bibb County school system at the end of last school year, she enrolled in a grant-writing course at Emory University so she could continue her quest to encourage fitness in young people. She is now developing a 60+ Goal Club through the Macon Housing Authority for 124 children in Felton and Murphy homes. Beginning in July, she will meet every third Saturday with children ages 11 to 18 and teach them how to exercise and prepare healthy meals. If the children follow her plan, they could lose at least 60 pounds over the year, she said.
No substitute for education
Endocrinologist Dr. Tom Jones and his registered nurse wife, Elizabeth, strongly believe education is key to turning around the obesity epidemic.
Jones sees how childhood overeating can lead adults to serious complications with diabetes. It’s a crisis that affects more than just the patients.
“If you don’t get the proper education or get the proper motivation at an early age, you’re on the kidney machine, you’re losing limbs and going blind,” he said. “Then you can’t work, so who’s paying for it?”
The Joneses have dedicated their careers to promoting wellness.
“The entire community has to get behind this — all the races, all the religions,” he said. “People have to realize it’s going to affect everyone.”
As a lifestyle coach, Elizabeth Jones stresses that parents need to not only make time for a child’s exercise, but to allow extra time to purchase and cook meals.
“It’s time management not only for activities but dinner and grocery shopping,” she said. “It can take up to a whole year to get that routine to be a lifestyle.”
In many households, parents rarely cook, let alone prepare healthy meals, she said.
“Therefore they don’t know nutrition because all they’re getting is this processed crap,” Tom Jones said.
His wife agrees.
“They’re digging their grave with a spoon and this generation won’t live as long as their parents,” she said.
Elizabeth Jones believes grandparents can step in to teach youngsters how to do simple kitchen tasks such as baking a chicken and preparing fresh vegetables.
Beyond families, though, the entire community has to be aware how simple snacks and junk food can sabotage even healthy children, the doctor said.
“At our churches, when the kids meet, they often have pizza or Krispy Kreme doughnuts for Sunday School. It’s that kind of thing,” Jones said. “If your child is overweight, you need to look at every time your kids come in contact with food — at birthday parties and everywhere else.”
The first step
Getting your child healthy may mean more than just enrolling them in a sports program at the local recreation center.
Kahley, the trainer, noticed a dramatic difference in his daughter’s appearance once she started playing school sports.
Although he never thought Aynslee had a real weight problem, she slimmed down considerably in just three months of running daily drills at Tattnall for softball and basketball.
“A lot of parents think their kids are active playing softball, but it’s not programmed exercises,” Kahley said. “They’re not moving.”
As an exercise physiologist, Kahley suggests that parents start making time for an hour of daily exercise with their children.
“It’s just an hour a day, but that’s family time,” he said. “It’s amazing. Just doing a little movement will get them talking.”
Kahley suggests making a game out of the activity. Don’t just walk around the block, but bounce a tennis ball back and forth to break up the walk, or count how many different colors of front doors are in the neighborhood. Children need variety.
“You take a normal kid and put them on a treadmill for 30 minutes and they’re going to go nuts,” Kahley said. “Their attention span won’t handle it.”
Coaches also need to watch what their athletes are eating and drinking. Sports drinks should only be reserved for ultra-endurance athletes, Kahley said.
“It tastes good, but actually with the sugar and sodium in there, it’s going to make you thirsty, and that’s what the drink companies want,” Kahley said.
Mind over matter
Kids can adjust their thinking about food. Often, just presenting it a little differently can make it more appealing.
A Yale University study showed that 78 percent of preschoolers chose a chocolate bar over broccoli. But when an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, 50 percent of the little ones opted for the vegetable.
During the recent community workout at Tattnall Square Park, trainer Michael Banks suggested that parents slice up fresh fruit and leave it out on the counter as if company were coming.
“Don’t tell your children you’re going to make changes. They don’t like it,” Banks told those assembled in the park. “Slice fruit up in water and see what happens.”
Parents also need to be conscious of times they are using food as a reward or an emotional lift. Adults’ attitudes can be one of the biggest obstacles a child will face when trying to lose weight, Kahley said.
“As Southerners, we love each other with food, and the kids are going to be included in that,” Kahley said.
The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity recently reported that the stigma of obesity can keep doctors, parents and teachers from feeling comfortable intervening with a child.
Health professionals need to use a gentle approach for fear of exacerbating the situation by leading children to developing eating disorders.
Steve Corkery, the director of psychological services for Bibb County public schools, knows children’s physical appearance can affect their mental well-being. Overweight children are subject to ridicule.
“There’s always the cruel kid or kids who don’t think before they speak or don’t care if they hurt somebody’s feelings,” Corkery said.
He believes in educating young people on slight changes that can make a big change.
“You don’t have to make an overnight change. Just add 15 to 20 minutes of walking,” said Corkery, who runs to keep fit. “It can be done in a constructive way. It affects self-esteem.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.