The growing girth of children in America has extended beyond a public health problem, say organizers of the 2005 California Childhood Obesity Conference, held in San Diego, January 9–12. Approximately 1,200 educators, public health professionals, nutrition experts, business leaders and youth organization representatives met to learn what they could do to educate their communities about the crisis.
While low-income populations were emphasized because of their level of risk, all children stand to benefit from the proposed strategies. Sessions highlighted helpful approaches to healthy eating and physical activity—most of them tested in cities and counties across California. A variety of perspectives reinforced the conference’s focus, which was to “form partnerships and move forward with workable solutions.” Two sub-themes, community design and advocacy, offered insight into how fitness professionals can get involved.
Community design and “smart growth” were popular topics at the conference. Experts discussed how, over the past 50 years, urban planning had gone from traditional, connected neighborhoods to “loops and lollipops,” where residences are cut off from the rest of the community. This new suburban setup discourages physical activity and therefore contributes to obesity.
James Sallis, PhD, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, referred to the shift as the “depedestrification” of America. “We need to look at ways to expand physical activity opportunities,” Sallis said. “By emphasizing the environment and reconnecting communities again, we can introduce incidental physical activity, which is simply being able to walk from your house to the store or park.”
Paul Zykofsky, director of Land Use Transportation Programs at the California Local Government Commission, echoed Sallis with his own research. Zykofsky is a “walkability expert,” and part of his job is to encourage and identify prospects for developing livable communities. Zykofsky showed many visual examples of poorly planned neighborhoods, including one in which a pedestrian was stranded on a median in the center of a treacherously busy street. “This could be any community in America,” Zykofsky said. “When you can’t even cross the street, why would you be encouraged to go for a walk?”
While fitness professionals aren’t urban planners, they can affect the outcome of livable-community development, according to Zykofsky. “What we are finding is that once we create these new and improved communities, we still need to educate children and their parents about how to exercise. We need people to come in and set up health fairs and reach out and educate the neighborhoods.”
To make a sustainable difference in the lives of overweight and obese children, conference attendees were encouraged to become advocates. America Bracho, MD, MPH, chief executive officer and president of Latino Health Access in Santa Ana, California, talked about how to start a physical activity initiative that works in underserved communities.
Bracho has dedicated her life to helping what she calls an “orphan zip code,” a poor area that doesn’t have an organized voice. She talked about how difficult it is to encourage healthy lifestyles when mere survival is the paramount issue. “You can’t tell these kids to exercise at school, because [physical education] has been taken away from them,” Bracho said. “You can’t tell them to walk around the block, because they live in crime-ridden neighborhoods. You can’t tell them to exercise in their living rooms, because many times two families live in one apartment and people sleep on the floor. Yet the Latino population is at a high risk for complications from obesity, and so many children are overweight. So what do you do?”
Bracho said the answer lies in providing culturally specific programs and encouraging parental involvement whenever possible. “It helps if you are yourself a part of the community,” she said. “This proves that you have a vested interest in the result.” Bracho encouraged attendees to reach out not only to those in special need of assistance but also to one another. “Many different players have to come to the table if we are going to make change happen.”