Fitness Fatigue

Children from Georgia Froumis's fourth and fifth grade class run

Gilroy at top of obesity list, with highest percent of
overweight children in the county
Gilroy – Georgia Froumis doesn’t need statistics and graphics to prove what she can already see in her classroom: children’s physiques have become noticeably larger since she began teaching in 1972.

“I think kids are couch potatoes these days,” said the Glen View Elementary School teacher.

That couch potato culture has catapulted Gilroy right to the top of the obesity list. At 31 percent, Gilroy has the highest percent of overweight children in Santa Clara County, according to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Gilroy also exceeded the 2004 statewide average of 28 percent. San Jose landed in second with 27 percent. At 12 percent Los Altos had the lowest number of overweight students, with Palo Alto close behind at 13 percent.

In Morgan Hill, 23 percent of the students fit into the overweight category.

The Davis, Calif.-based nonprofit analyzed data from the California Department of Educations’ 2004 Physical Fitness Test and compared the numbers to results from the 2001 test. Overweight status is determined by the body fat composition portion of the fitness test.

Students take the fitness assessment in the fifth, seventh and ninth grade.

Some educators think the nation’s focus on test scores has produced some unwelcome results: an inflated population of not-so-pleasingly plump kids.

Pat Vickroy, who teaches PE at El Roble, Antonio Del Buono, Rod Kelley and Rucker elementary schools, pointed out that in the 1990s the Gilroy Unified School District began focusing on ways to improve reading and math scores and one of the strategies was to trim “nonessential” classes such as physical education.

Today, the state only requires 200 minutes of PE every 10 days in elementary school and 400 minutes every 10 days, for middle school students and high school freshmen and sophomores.

Vickroy, who has taught for 27 years, sighed when informed that Gilroy has the largest percent of overweight students in Santa Clara County.

“In general in our society I recognize that there’s been a tremendous increase in body mass in our public not just in children but in everybody,” he said.

Areas in California, such as Gilroy, with high populations of Hispanics tend to have a higher prevalence of obesity. In Santa Clara County in 2004, 35 percent of Hispanic children in fifth, seventh and ninth grades were overweight compared to 20 percent of white children and 24 percent of children overall in the county.

But the obesity rates also appear to mirror the city’s economic status. Gilroy has a large Hispanic population and it’s the county’s poorest city.

“The obesity thing crosses all cultures, generally speaking, all Americans are becoming unhealthy,” said Vickroy.

Efforts to reverse the nationwide fattening-up trend are being made throughout the nation and state. Here in Santa Clara County, school officials and educators are fighting the battle with tennis shoes and carrot sticks.

In late October the Santa Clara County Office of Education kicked off its Fit for Learning program. While in its pilot year the program, which is sponsored by a variety of local organizations including Health Trust and Healthy Silicon Valley, is focusing on improving fifth-grader’s health through education. In October soccer player Brandi Chastain served as a guest speaker at the kick-off.

Patty Murphy, SCCOE executive director of communications, said the goal is to teach parents and students about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

“Our plan was not to have kids run five miles a day or do 50 push-ups,” she said.

The Fit for Life committee will look at after school activities and focus on spreading the word about the right way to eat, the importance of exercising and the many health costs associated with obesity, Murphy said.

The committee plans to gather data on a variety of health-related issues in schools and eventually offer the program to more grades. Teachers and parents who received training in August are labeled “champions” and serve as ambassadors at their sites for the Fit for Life program, said Murphy.

The goal is to have a champion in every grade, at every school, she said.

Froumis seems like the perfect candidate for a champion title.

The teacher started her own fitness program at Glen View. After lunch her fourth and fifth graders hit the grass and start running.

A runner herself, Froumis joins her students on their daily jogs.

“And, as you can see they love it,” said Froumis pointing to her students as they jogged a mile around the elementary school on Tuesday under the warm afternoon sun.

Some kids coasted along, while wiry ones such as Sean Horner, led the pack. He even asked Froumis for permission to run an extra lap, saying running “calms me down.”

All the students quickly answered “yes” when asked if the afternoon jog clears their head.

“Every time I run I have my brain back and I have it ready to start class,” said 10-year-old Yarely Batista.

The obesity epidemic has had one positive effect: GUSD officials have changed their attitude about fitness.

In the past, principals and other district officials discouraged teachers to take out students during class and exercise but today it’s the opposite, said Vickroy.

But childhood obesity isn’t only a school issue, many factors come into play, he said. Children are constantly sitting around playing video games, surfing the ‘net and zoning out in front of the television.

“People are not trusting so they don’t allow their kids to just go out and play like they did,” in the past, said Vickroy.

“I think what we have to do as a society is we have to stop looking at the consequences of obesity and inactivity and look at the reason for being healthy,” he said. “We have to start coming up with strategies that are going to get people to open the door and step outside.”

Fit for Learning

WHAT: Participants will learn practical activities to promote nutrition and physical activity in Healthy Start and After School Programs.

WHEN: Dec. 2, 8am to 2pm

WHERE: Santa Clara County Office of Education, 1290 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose

COST: $20

DETAILS: 831-784-4168 or e-mail [email protected]

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