Ulster County’s rate of obesity is currently higher than the national average. The national target is to reduce the rate of obesity of children six to eleven years old by one in ten to a national rate of 16 percent. Nationwide, the numbers have been going the other way, with a linear trend toward an increased number of overweight children over time.
Children should not be judged by their weight or their dietary habits alone. Maintaining healthy habits can be accomplished in various ways, some effective though unorthodox.
Last Friday two New Paltz youngsters, Adam Mansour and Alex St. George, fulfilled what Alex’s mother described as an eleven-year-old’s dream by participating in a hamburger-eating contest at Kentucky Fried Chicken in New Paltz. The goal for their category, one out of three, tested whether at child under 13 could eat a five-stack hamburger called the Ocho Cinqo in under three minutes and 56 seconds. Those who could got the burger free. The boys both succeeded, but not in the allotted time. They’re slow but enthusiastic eaters.
“Adam and Alex love the show Man Versus Food on the Travel Channel with host Adam Richmond,” explained Alex’s mother, Victoria St. George, “and this contest brings a little of the show to New Paltz.”
But Alex St. George didn’t rest on his laurels. The same day, reports his mother, he and his family walked across the Walkway Over the Hudson. And after the contest neither eleven-year-old ate anything until the next afternoon. Physical activity and nutrition are both big items in the St. George family: balanced meals, a lot of exercise, growing their own garden, a low-carb and high-protein diet, visits to the nutritionist.
Comparison with a 2007 study showed no difference in rate of obesity among Ulster County first and third graders in 2010 as measured by body mass index. Consistent with national trends, the local results show that the proportion of overweight and obese children increases from first to seventh grades, with a significant increase in overweight and obesity from third to fifth grade. In the first grade, 18 percent of Ulster schoolchildren are obese and an additional 14 percent overweight. The equivalent figures among seventh graders are 24 and 18 percent — an increase of about one third in each category.
Some Ulster County school districts had rates as high as one in two obese or overweight children, others as low as one in four. The study prepared by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) of SUNY New Paltz cautioned that BMI does not account for muscle mass, which is higher among older students. Since data-collection methods were different in the various school systems, comparisons between the districts should be made with caution. “When comparing across school districts,” the study conclusions warned, “there were no clear patterns, thus discouraging the use of overall county-level findings to understand each district individually.”
“Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and has become our nation’s number-one public-health issue,” said Ulster County public health director Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck. “Because obese children are likely to become obese adults, children are at increased risk for all of the associated health risks including Type Two diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Every sector of our community, including parents, educators, community leaders and health professionals, needs to work together to help reverse this trend and ensure a healthier future for our children.”
The day of the hamburger-eating contest was Alex St. George’s birthday. “It was a onetime fun activity,” said his mother. “They had such a good time …. It’s important to support within reason anything they do in moderation. My son had a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, but he said he’d never do it again. We’re not terrible parents. We talked to them before and after. Let’s explore it, we said. They have to expand their horizons. We process what they experience every time they walk through the door.”
Victoria St. George said that she and her husband Scott, schoolteachers by profession, are very active people (garden, swimming, walking) who maintain a calendar of healthful activities. “We’re very healthy, though we’re all big people [he is six foot four, she five foot ten],” she said. “The spirit and the enthusiasm is important. You can’t tell a kid ‘no’ all the time because they feel they are being bad.”
Adam Mansour and Alex St. George are active Boy Scouts. They recently participated as scout color guards in a ceremony at the New Paltz Rural Cemetery. “It was a very emotional experience, very solemn and sobering,” said Alex’s mother.
The kids also went away to scout camp this summer for the first time. “They have to expand their horizons,” explained Victoria St. George. “Parenting is the hardest thing. They feed back their experiences, and we talk .… This was a wonderful experience, a one-time fun activity. You have to experience something different in life.”
As a component of its prevention agenda and a part of a statewide plan for overweight and obesity prevention, Ulster County’s youth council, part of the county’s Healthy Ulster continuing initiative, this past year chose obesity as one of its two priority health indicators. (Maternal plus child health was the subject of the other indicator).
The youth council decided, according to its minutes, to work toward joint-use agreements for after-school community programs. The aim is to include enhanced opportunities for physical activity and healthy snack choices, and to provide access to preventive health information. The group has more recently been looking at exercise facilities.
The county youth health council is one of four committees (healthy women, healthy seniors, healthy youth and healthy places), each in existence for one year, who reported at the Healthy Ulster summit.
Within the past year, Ulster County has secured a million-dollar “Creating Healthy Places” grant designed to combat obesity and Type Two diabetes through policy and environmental changes in selected communities in Ulster County. About 82 percent of Type Two diabetics in the state are obese or overweight, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
A significant 2005 English study examined the relationship between childhood obesity and children’s level of physical activity. Children’s parents or guardians were asked questions about a range of children’s activities such as walking, sports and exercise activities, and active play. The levels of physical activity reported were then grouped into three categories: active, insufficiently active and sedentary.
Active children were active for 60 minutes per day for seven days in the last week. Insufficiently active kids were active for 30-59 minutes per day for seven days in the last week. Sedentary children were active at a lower level or not active at all.
Although no statistically significant differences were observed, there was a tendency for obesity rates to rise as children’s levels of physical activity fell. Some 14.8 percent of those who were highly active were obese compared with 17.4 percent of those classified as sedentary.
Careful attention to physical activity is a keystone to health for everybody. A holistic perspective offers health benefits. “Everything is organic in my house,” stated Victoria St. George. “Homemade granola bars, visits to farmers’ market, gardening, regular checkups.” ++