Robert W. Dunlevy
Member of the West Virginia Board of Education
As a former college and professional athlete, it saddens me to know so many of our children are overweight because being overweight carries more than health concerns. Overweight children often are victims of bullying. They also suffer from alienation and social isolation, which can lead to lower self-esteem and depression. These negative effects can stay with them for the rest of their lives.
By any health measure, today’s children are in crisis. Seventeen percent of American children are overweight, and increasing numbers of children are developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, which, until a few years ago, was a condition seen almost only in adults.
The obesity rate of adolescents has tripled since 1980 and shows no sign of slowing down.
Today’s children have the dubious honor of belonging to the first cohort in history that may have a lower life expectancy than their parents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that 30 to 40 percent of today’s children will have diabetes in their lifetimes if current trends continue.
The statistics are no better in West Virginia where one in three children born today will likely develop diabetes by the time they grow up. Our state is consistently among the top three states for obesity with about a third of our residents considered obese and more considered overweight, according to the state Bureau of Public Health.
Schools are critical to addressing the crisis because much of the food students eat each day as well as their physical activity happens at school. Schools can help by promoting healthy diets and fostering an appreciation of physical activity. If we can get kids interested or more involved in exercise and nutrition, then their quality of life will greatly improve.
The West Virginia Board of Education and the Department of Education recognize this challenge and that’s why the state board issued a position statement in 2006 that places a priority on good health and reducing childhood obesity in West Virginia. The state board also recommended guidelines for counties to use in developing their own wellness policies, which address nutrition, physical activity and health education.
The West Virginia Board of Education also has strengthened nutrition guidelines by prohibiting the sale of caffeinated beverages in school and requiring that only healthy drinks be sold. West Virginia also prohibits the sale of candy or chewing gum and limits what is sold in vending machines and when they can be turned on so that they don’t interfere with school lunches.
State law and West Virginia Board of Education policy also require elementary students get at least 30 minutes of physical education three times a week. Middle school students are required to get a full semester of physical education every day and high school students must have one unit of physical education.
Physical education promotes lifelong fitness and beneficial health habits while providing an opportunity to be active during the school day.
By adopting such policies in West Virginia, the state school board hopes to increase the likelihood that students will consume healthy foods and up their physical activity each day.
Research proves time and time again that there is a significant link between student health and learning. A well-nourished, healthy child does better on tests, has fewer behavior problems and has less absenteeism.
Whether it’s physical activity, proper nutrition or health education, the West Virginia Board of Education is committed to providing a healthy and safe environment for our students in public schools and we intend to continue to place greater emphasis on health and physical wellness with students and staff.
The bottom line is healthy students have a greater capacity to learn and are ultimately more successful in school and life.