In May, Amanda Edwards did something that surprised just about everyone but herself.
In Seneca, she lined up among a group of mainly muscle-bound men and completed a grueling 12-mile and 22-obstacle event called the Tough Mudder.
It was the hardest thing she’s ever done, she said – including giving birth. But for Edwards, a Cary resident and principal of Liberty Elementary in Carpentersville, finishing the race meant proving something not only to herself but also to her 10-year-old daughter, Maddy.
Although she watches what she eats and trains hard, Edwards has never had the magazine-cover body to show for it. When she saw her daughter developing in the same way, she got motivated not only to showcase her endurance but also to make fitness a family affair.
“If she’s anything like me, she’s going to fight that battle growing up,” Edwards said. “She sees me doing the Tough Mudder with my team of all these big, buff guys – and me. She knows that you can do it, but I want her to be able to feel it for herself and not worry about what the number on the scale says.”
Hers is a way of thinking shared by many who work on a grander scale to try to better the health of American children: de-emphasize weight loss and instead focus on the daily decisions that affect a child’s overall fitness. Replace the fried stuff with veggies. Skip the soda. Limit time spent in front of the TV. Walk when possible.
Experts offer solutions to the childhood obesity epidemic as varied as the factors that caused it.
In the spring, Amanda and Maddy went through an eight-week Centegra program called Kids in Motion.
While it’s open to any interested families, the program’s directors say it provides the type of education needed to address the country’s growing childhood obesity problem.
In simplest terms, a child with excess body fat is considered overweight or obese. Doctors take several factors into consideration – including weight, age, height and gender – to determine whether a child fits into one of those categories. A child well above the normal weight for his or her age and height is considered obese, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A May 2010 report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity found that nearly one in every three children ages 2 to 19 is overweight or obese. The task force’s action plan is to reduce the childhood obesity rate to 5 percent by 2030, the same rate before it began to rise in the late 1970s.
It’s attempted to do so through a variety of ways, including changing the familiar food group pyramid to the MyPlate icon, intended to remind people to eat healthy. It illustrates the five food groups using a familiar visual – a place setting.
In August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a first sign of potential progress, a study that showed that from 2008-2011 nationwide there was a decrease in the obesity rate for preschool children from low-income families. Nineteen states/territories showed decreases, while 20 others – including Illinois – experienced no significant change. The rates rose in three states.
Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University, called that report encouraging and significant but said awareness of making healthy choices needs to continue.
“It’s not time to stop,” she said.
An evolving approach
While Henry is optimistic about the effect that awareness campaigns have had on establishing childhood obesity as a national topic, she’s not willing to say the right measures have been taken yet to point the graph downward.
She said efforts to this point have been scattered.
In McHenry County, efforts have ramped up only in the past three to five years, particularly among school districts.
The evolution is seen in the way Teresa Wolf’s job has changed in her seven years with Crystal Lake’s District 47.
Hired as a science specialist – a title she maintains today – Wolf’s duties have shifted during the past few years. Her current area of emphasis is heading the district’s efforts to curb childhood obesity.
Wolf oversees the implementation of CATCH into District 47 schools. The program – in seven of the district’s schools with an aim to be in all 12 – represents a collaboration between the district, the McHenry County Health Department and Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital.
CATCH, or Coordinated Approach To Child Health, seeks to boost school education on healthy eating and exercise habits and reform physical activities and cafeteria offerings.
Those reforms are based mainly on simple ideas, said Julie Mayer, who coordinates Advocate Good Shepherd’s involvement in the program.
For instance, under traditional rules of the gym class-favorite dodgeball, a player that gets hit sits out until a new game begins. That wouldn’t fly under the CATCH rules.
“They have some other way of making sure you’re staying active,” she said.
‘It’s all baby steps’
The McHenry County Department of Health uses federal grant money to help schools get CATCH running – which costs about $3,500 per school, health promotion coordinator Meaghan Haak said. The department also provides free training.
Wolf said making changes to health standards can feel like a tug of war, a fight to slowly bring the flag toward the side of fitness while other factors – among them, the complaints of students – pull at the other side.
“When we made some of our lunch menu changes, we had a drop in our lunch counts because the kids liked the old choices and didn’t want [the] healthier version,” Wolf said. “So I think anything with school wellness, it’s all baby steps.”
Many experts view changes in the school as the most effective way to stop growing childhood obesity stats, reasoning that it’s the only opportunity to reach nearly all children.
So far, the McHenry County Department of Health has helped 26 schools get CATCH running, including those in District 47, Woodstock District 200, McHenry District 15, Harvard District 50, Marengo District 165 and Harrison District 36. Algonquin schools in District 300 also carry the program.
“We would love to see the CATCH program in every school in McHenry County,” Haak said.
But efforts by school districts reach beyond CATCH.
Menu changes are encouraged by a U.S. Agriculture Department program called the HealthierUS School Challenge. Under that program – which requires an application for recognition – schools that meet menu requirements are awarded based on what percentage of children order school lunches.
Every Woodstock District 200 school, Husmann Elementary School in Crystal Lake and a few McHenry County schools in Carpentersville-based District 300 have received various levels of the honor since the program started in 2004.
The trick, District 200 food services director Sue Malley said, is to make those menu changes without losing student interest. The district makes pizza with whole-grain crust and substitutes fatty sides such as classic potato chips and french fries with baked chips and sweet potato fries.
Beyond the schools
Outside education, several other McHenry County entities have started programs to try to curb childhood obesity.
The Sage YMCA holds a Healthy Kids Day each year, combining fitness activities and healthy snacks with seminars on creating a healthy family. They also offer a health-minded summer camp and after-school programs.
During Centegra’s Kids in Motion eight-week program, kids exercise and learn healthy habits with personal trainer Shawn Tegtmeier while parents learn – in a separate room – how to promote family fitness from Lauren Henke, a registered dietitian.
“Educating the families and the kids at the same time, I think that is a key thing,” Tegtmeier said. “They can work together.”
Amanda Edwards, who attended the program in the spring with her daughter, said the information they gained is still affecting daily decisions.
Maddy remembers bits of information she learned from the class and puts them into practice. She tries to characterize foods by the categories she learned in the program, categories that also play a key role in CATCH programming: “go,” “slow” and “whoa.”
“She will make different food selections than she normally would,” Amanda Edwards said. “A lot of times, I’d make mac and cheese for the kids for dinner, and she’d look at it and say, ‘Oh, can I have another bowl?’
“I’ll look at her. She’ll be like, ‘All right.’ And she’ll go grab carrots, she’ll go grab strawberries.”
A cultural shift
While Edwards maintains it isn’t about the numbers, Maddy did make some gains in that department during Kids in Motion. She more than quadrupled the amount of pull-ups and push-ups she can do. She didn’t lose any weight, but she lost an inch and a half off her waist and an inch off her arms.
But there’s another number from Edwards’ Kids In Motion session that might be telling: Only four families attended.
The programs’ directors are confused by that number. Centegra advertises for the class on the radio and in the newspaper. Its brochures have been placed in the offices of pediatricians.
“I’m just not certain what it is,” Tegtmeier said. “We don’t know.”
At the end of the day, the toughest challenge facing those committed to fitness might be getting through to parents.
“They used to say that parents would recognize childhood obesity as a problem, but it wasn’t a problem for their kids,” said Henry, of NIU.
In the long term, Henry predicts, significant changes won’t come like a crashing wave – more like the slow turning of the cultural tide. It’ll take a shift back toward simply promoting healthy growth and development.
“Which is what the message used to be before this trend,” she said.
• Shaw Media Projects Editor Kate Schott contributed to this report.