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The first week in April is National Public Health Week. With events scheduled April 4-12, there are plenty of fun and healthy activities to kick-start an active summer. For children especially, a healthy start in life begins with a healthy weight.

By Kate Skinner

The first week in April is National Public Health Week. With events scheduled April 4-12, there are plenty of fun and healthy activities to kick-start an active summer. For children especially, a healthy start in life begins with a healthy weight.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a growing national trend often referred to as the “obesity epidemic.” Unfortunately, is has not been limited to adults. Dr. Marcia Ory is currently conducting a study with the goal of improving the health of youth throughout Texas. A regents and distinguished professor, Ory is a faculty member in the department of health promotion and community health sciences at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health.

While Ory notes there are fewer children who are classified as overweight and obese than adults, she describes the issue as one of extreme importance.

“Why people should be concerned about the childhood obesity problem is because if you’re in preschool or elementary and you are obese, you are four to five times more likely to become an obese adult,” says Ory. “The lifetime impact is greater. When you look at where this could lead this becomes something of national concern – heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other latent, related conditions. This is not a ‘big versus small’ problem. We need to look at what is preventable at an early age, and help prevent disease as people grow older.”

Ory’s study has demonstrated measureable success in areas of Texas outside the Brazos Valley with projects aimed at both state and local levels. One focus looks at policies regarding the packaging of WIC (Texas Women, Infants and Children) federal food allocations with the goal of improving health among lower-income communities by presenting information about more nutrient-rich foods with lower caloric counts.

The second focus of the study, Safer Routes to School, works with the Texas Department of Transportation to provide places for children to safely walk or bike to school without sacrificing parents’ peace of mind.

Ory acknowledges that childhood obesity can’t be cured overnight. “There are many reasons why we’re having this epidemic, and there are also many solutions,” she says. “We need to take a comprehensive approach. You can’t just expect kids to change by themselves. It will take schools, parents, the community, and the government’s involvement. Everyone should work together. 

“It used to be that almost everyone walked to school every day. We have those stories ‘I walked three miles in the snow to get to school.’ Now, we’re lucky to see 10 percent to 20 percent of kids walking to school,” says Ory, who hopes to see some of the programs she has seen implemented in other areas of Texas brought to the Brazos Valley. Things as simple as giving children a safe place to play outside, walking with your child to school, or eating meals at home with the entire family can have a big influence over time. 

So how can the Brazos Valley work to improve its overall health?

Ory says the biggest factor is understanding what can be done on your own. “Get the kids active. Limit screen time — things that you do while sitting down. Parents can limit that. Teach children where food comes from, so they know it’s not from a potato chip bag, but from the ground. If they take part in the process, they are more likely to want to eat it. Cook healthy as a family. Look at your environment, walk around downtown Bryan, be more physically active.”

Even these simple things have created a significant change in the national obesity levels in preschool age children, says Ory, citing studies that show the number of children classified as overweight in this age group has dropped to 8 percent from a starting point of 12 percent.

“People are starting to really pay attention to this issue and they want to do something,” says Ory. “We are studying reasons, and looking for solutions. This has implications for the future of Texas, and for the future of the Brazos Valley.”

For more information about Ory and the study she is conducting, and for more information about National Public Health Week events, visit: www.srph.tamhsc.edu.