Leadership Jackson County project team encourages youth to ‘get out and play’


Hearing Jackson County has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the state was disturbing.

The Leadership Jackson County youth project team of Linda Morris, Rachel Nay, Drew Royalty, Ben Stellwagen and Tyler Thias consulted with local youth-serving organizations to see what could be done to change that staggering statistic.

Several of those groups said schools are looking for programming to supplement what they already are doing but have limited resources.

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Youth not being as active anymore has been one of the contributing factors to obesity.

So during Kids Fest in April, the project team set up an interactive booth for kids and their parents to do activities together and learn the benefits of being physically active.

Nay said that event was chosen because it’s already established with guaranteed traffic, it’s naturally fun and engaging and no advertising was needed since Child Care Network handles the organization and promotion.

“Kids Fest is naturally fun, and the kids and parents know that there are things for their kids to do, and they were eager to hop in and try activities we brought,” Nay said.

Parents helped at the jump rope, shuttle run and tug-of-war stations, and they were on the floor with kids playing Jenga. Every block gave instructions for people to do an exercise, such as push-ups or sit-ups.

Prizes were offered as incentives for participating in the activities, and families were given pamphlets explaining the benefits of each of the exercises.

“We wanted to help educate parents and kids about the health benefits of having an active, healthy lifestyle, and this is a great way to interact with kids and parents together,” Nay said.

Morris said for the first time in U.S. history, children are expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Nay said 12 million American children are considered obese.

In Indiana, nearly one-third of children 5 and under have a body weight greater than 85 percent of their peers, Morris said. Half of them are considered obese and have a greater risk of health and self-esteem problems later in life.

“We need to reach out to our youth and show them how important it is to their future as well as ours,” Morris said.

Statistics show that less than one-third of kids 6 to 17 get at least 20 minutes of daily exercise, she said.

“That is downright tragic considering the multitude of short- and long-term health benefits your child can gain from a regular exercise regimen,” Morris said.

That can include higher IQ, reduced risk of diabetes, improved brainpower, immune system function, thinking, sleep and mood, stronger bones, weight loss and increased energy levels.

Physical activity combined with healthy eating can help prevent a range of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and stroke, which are the three leading causes of death, Morris said.

“It’s a tug of war trying to stay healthy today with fast food, pop, etc., so we need to show them our strength of being a good role model, as we as adults can overcome, they also can overcome,” she said.

“Children need 60 minutes of playing with moderate to vigorous activity every day to grow up to be a healthy weight, so we need to practice what we preach, keep the junk food at a distance, limit your trips to a fast food restaurant and encourage your kids to just be kids and let them play,” Morris said.

Royalty said his family makes an effort to go on walks together, and he is surprised to see few children playing outside.

“Our culture has changed so much in just a few short years,” he said. “Many children are spending their time at home playing video games or watching television rather than getting their recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day.”

It also doesn’t help that the increase in academic rigors in elementary schools results in recess time being reduced, and more technology being used means kids spend less time doing physical activity.

“Once home from school, these children continue to be disconnected from physical play by having more screen time,” Royalty said.

He found that a high percentage of kids 2 to 17 play video games, and it’s most popular among ages 2 to 5. And he found Harvard University studies that followed children from birth and found television viewing in childhood predicts obesity risk well into adulthood.

Environmental factors also play a role, he said. Some have limited access to safe places to play, live in unfavorable conditions or can’t afford to buy healthy foods, a gym membership or exercise clothing or equipment.

Buying an inexpensive jump rope is one solution to boost a child’s physical fitness, Royalty said.

“Jumping rope has numerous benefits and very few drawbacks,” he said. “In addition to aiding weight loss, it builds endurance, cardiovascular fitness and improves balance and coordination. An unexpected benefit is the increased blood flow to the brain, which can heighten alertness. … And you don’t need to be on a team to stay physically active. The benefit of owning an inexpensive jump rope is you can do it by yourself.”

Other activities with low or no cost include walking around the neighborhood, playing basketball in a park, playing on playground equipment, doing jumping jacks and throwing a Frisbee.

“If kids can’t get out to do these activities, we want to encourage them to be active at home,” Nay said. “It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or complicated. We have to teach not just the children but the parents and guardians that starting in small steps can lead to healthy results later in life.”

Thias said collaborating between community resources also is key, and connections must be made between the agencies and parents.

“The agencies can promote the positive impact while the kids are there, but it has to continue beyond those four walls so kids get outside those four walls,” he said. “It’s very important that the parents are on board, and it’s vital that we coordinate the efforts between the agencies.”

To help address the obesity problem, Stellwagen pointed out five W’s.

“It’s going to take actual work,” he said. “The problem is not going to solve itself.”

Witness is the second component and involves creating awareness and being able to talk about issues with people who may not necessarily be in your own organization.

Wisdom is the third part.

“We need to collaborate,” Stellwagen said. “We need to brainstorm. We need to bring together all of the various wisdom and experiences and perspectives that everyone has to bear to be able to solve these problems.”

Wealth involves monetary commitment to be able to move forward, and the final part is wallop.

“You are all involved in different organizations, agencies. You have different friends and networks that you’re a part of. You each pack your own unique punch,” Stellwagen said. “Being brought together, being able to collaborate or coordinate efforts can help us be very successful in addressing what is both a growing problem and one that’s getting younger and younger.”

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