How Some Schools Are Rethinking the Fight Against Fat
Change seems to happen when good health is the focus, rather than body weight
Kids heading back to enlightened schools this fall may find nutrition and exercise on the agenda even in math class. In an effort to reverse the alarming increase of obesity in children, some schools have found ways to encourage healthful lifestyle changes without emphasizing the negative—too much body weight. (A focus on losing weight has been shown to backfire, causing youngsters to turn to fad diets and develop eating disorders.) Planet Health, developed by Harvard University researchers and now used in hundreds of schools throughout the country, integrates obesity prevention lessons into the science, math, and social studies curricula, for example. Students come to appreciate the importance of reducing TV time by calculating during math class the amount of their lifetime they've spent in front of the set. In gym, they decide on goals for subbing in physical activity instead.
The program costs only about $15 per student annually, a bargain, considering the payoffs: A 2005 study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that middle-school girls who had Planet Health in their schools were half as likely to purge or use diet pills as those in schools without it. "It really focuses on the positive, and that's why we think it's protective against these dangerous behaviors," says study author Bryn Austin, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
A second program adopted by 7,000 elementary schools nationwide, the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH), similarly puts the focus on good health habits instead of weight. In class, students use a traffic-light system to identify "go," "slow," and "whoa" foods and take breaks to do jumping jacks. In the cafeteria, fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk, and whole-grain starches are labeled with green-light tags, and pizza gets a yellow light. Gym activities are designed to keep students constantly moving. "Every kid gets a ball to dribble or a hula hoop; there's no lining up and waiting to take a turn," says Phil Nader, professor of pediatrics emeritus at the University of California—San Diego, who helped develop CATCH.
A three-year study comparing CATCH schools with others without the program found that CATCH increased the proportion of gym class spent in motion, from 40 percent to 50 percent, and reduced the consumption of fat in schools from 39 percent of total calories to 32 percent. A second study found that the program prevented the growth in number of overweight students that normally occurs from grade 3 to grade 5. CATCH students in El Paso, Texas (with one of the highest obesity rates in the nation), held the line between those grades, but in schools without the program, the share of overweight girls increased from 26 percent to 40 percent and of overweight boys from 29 percent to 39 percent.
Glen Cove Elementary School, near El Paso in Ysleta, was one of the first schools to adopt CATCH, and parents there have learned to eat better and exercise more along with their kids. "We have a day where everyone comes to fly kites and Wellness Wednesdays where family members run around for 20 minutes with their kids," says physical education teacher Ben Avalos, who brought the program to Glen Cove in 1998. "Parents also tell me their kids have gotten them to throw out the 'whoa' foods in the house." Avalos uses walking sticks, pogo sticks, and Chinese yo-yos in gym class—and nobody relaxes on the sidelines.