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By Mallory Powell
Special to KyForward
Today’s public schools serve and educate students amidst competing demands of accountability, innovation and fiscal constraints. Kentucky’s schools face an additional and significant challenge: The Commonwealth has the eighth highest rate of childhood obesity in the country, and more than one-third of Kentucky children are overweight or obese.
A growing body of evidence links childhood health status — specifically nutrition and physical activity — with academic achievement. This relationship will be the focus of the Kentucky Summit on Childhood Obesity and Physical Activity on July 30 at the University of Kentucky.
Like so many modern health problems, childhood obesity is complex and multidimensional and therefore requires interdisciplinary responses. The summit will thus convene a diverse array of stakeholders and experts to discuss strategies for addressing the state’s high rate of childhood obesity and its impact on academic achievement. The UK colleges of education, public health and agriculture are involved, along with several state and local officials in the Kentucky K12 public school system and related health interest organizations.
“The summit is an initial effort to catalyze discussion in this state around the intersection of health, physical activity, nutrition and learning,” said Dr. Steve Wyatt, associate director of the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science.
With a broad spectrum of health and education expertise on campus, and as the state’s flagship, land grant institution, UK is uniquely positioned to initiate statewide dialogue and action on this issue of growing concern.
“We are fortunate that the intersection of health and academic outcomes is a topic where a growing body of research is yielding guidance,” said Dr. Mary Lynne Capilouto, whose leadership has been key in establishing the summit.
Despite the substantial evidence that physical activity can improve educational outcomes, “in 2006 only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools in the United States provided daily physical education or its equivalent for all students in all grades”, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kentucky is one of many states that don’t consistently require physical activity in K12 public schools, and this policy will be of central focus at the summit.
“It is imperative that we take a collaborative approach to the growing problem of obesity that assails Kentucky’s children,” said Capilouto.
A statewide effort to create healthy learning environments in which children can reach their academic and creative potential could possibly improve Kentucky’s economic wellbeing, too.
“Better educational outcomes and a healthier group of students finishing high school is better for our workforce and our economic development, and lowers health care costs,” said Wyatt.
He adds that a public school system that creatively addresses the spectrum of children’s needs – not just academic education, but also health and wellness – could also help attract talent and business to the state.
UK is hosting the summit in partnership with Kentucky Youth Advocates and Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and in conjunction with a health policy grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant, of which Wyatt is the principal investigator, has previously worked with schools to promote physical activity through shared use agreements, which allow school facilities, like gyms and sports fields, to be used by the community after school hours. In many rural areas of the state, where sidewalks and parks are scarce, schools can serve as safe space for physical activity.
“A city might not be able to spend $6 million on a new park, but often they can partner with a school to create more community space for physical activity,” Wyatt explained.
He is hopeful that the summit will create further momentum for policy change that supports more physical activities in Kentucky communities.
“We recognize that educational initiatives like this are best grounded, initially, at the community level. You’ve got to put options on the table, explore things and really look at the science,” he said. “Policy change takes time. But you have to make the initial step of getting all the players to the table.”
Mallory Powell is an information specialist senior with the University of Kentucky.