Originally created 09/15/03

Summit looks at ways to make exercise fun



ATLANTA - When Allan Vargas visits schools throughout Costa Rica, he said, it's never hard for him to find overweight children - even in preschools.

What truly concerns him, though, is that the children say they have no desire to go outside and play, choosing instead to watch television.

"They say, 'I hate my physical education teacher. I hate physical activity, and I don't want to run under the hot sun,"' said Mr. Vargas, the spokesman for Costa Rica's Institute for Sports & Creation. Mr. Vargas was among more than 40 international fitness and health experts who convened in Atlanta last week for an international summit aimed at fighting childhood obesity on a worldwide level.

Participants - coming from as far away as Australia, Israel and Nepal - shared their ideas on how to make physical activity fun and engaging for the world's children, many of whom are becoming obese at alarming rates.

"We know kids are much more sedentary these days," said Michael Gray, the vice president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, which conducted the summit. "Technology has hurt our children. Instead of going out in the yard and kicking around a ball, they sit around playing video games."

In the United States, federal health officials say the percentage of overweight children has doubled since 1989. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 15 percent of children ages 12-19 are overweight.

"This is not just a United States problem; this is a worldwide problem," said Dr. Gray, who teaches exercise science at Northern Kentucky University.

DURING THE PAST 15 years, the number of obese children in China has increased by 20 percent, and Brazil has seen its figures triple. The representatives at the summit testified to similar conditions in their home countries.

Said Lamrini, a researcher at the Moroccan Ministry of Youth & Sports, said his country, on the northwestern coast of Africa, has embraced plans to promote youth activity in order to reduce large medical bills in the future.

Mr. Lamrini said obesity already accounts for about 5 percent of health expenditures around the world. If more children become obese, health-care costs could climb even higher, both for individuals and for governments that pick up part or all of medical costs.

The summit attendees agreed that no magic bullet exists. Instead, a variety of campaigns and approaches are needed to persuade children - and their parents who usually make food-purchasing decisions - to lead healthier lives.

"Sedentary lifestyles, even with moderate calorie intake, often lead to obesity, especially in rich, so-called civilized societies," said summit delegate Zsolt Radak, a professor at the Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary. "You have to build stronger and more effective physical education programs and convince families of its importance as well."

However, the focus isn't to persuade children to think about their health, but instead to have fun while being active.

"Kids aren't going to go out and do push-ups and calisthenics because they think it's fun," Dr. Gray said.

Leaders in the health community agree.

"Nine- to 13-year-olds aren't going to be interested in their health as adults. They aren't focusing on long-term benefits," said Mike Greenwell, a spokesman for the CDC's Chronic Disease Center.

Knowing that, the CDC launched a $125 million campaign in June 2002 called Verb: It's What You Do. The campaign offered a fun-focused message to children about physical activity.

"What we want kids to get from our campaign is that physical activity is cool," Mr. Greenwell said. The Verb campaign urges children to discover something physical they enjoy doing and to define themselves by that activity, such as running, swimming, skating or biking. The media blitzkrieg already has popped up on TV channels, including Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, and in D.C. Comics and Teen People magazine.