Thursday, April 1, 2010

Local Doctor Gives Me a New Perspective on Childhood Obesity


As someone who has worked with young children and their families for more than 25 years, I have witnesssed the increase in childhood obesity firsthand. When I started my career as an early childhood teacher back in 1982, the number of obese or overweight children in the U.S. was relatively small. But since then the number of overweight or obese preschoolers has more than doubled. And the number of overweight or obese 6-11-year-olds has tripled.

The statistics for Illinois are particularly staggering. According to a 2009 study from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one in five Illinois children is obese, giving us the fourth worst rate in the nation. These increases have led to a rise in health problems including type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and new-onset asthma.

Initially I considered this problem in terms of individual children and families. I thought about all of the kids I have known in my 25 years as a teacher and family educator. I wanted to do something. When Sesame Workshop unveiled their Healthy Habits for Life curriculum back in 2004, I felt empowered. I am the educational outreach director for a public media station (WILL), and if I could get parents, teachers and child care providers to start using this curriculum, to start exercising more and making better food choices, I could really fight childhood obesity.

It didn't take long for me to realize that obesity is a complex issue that involves more than just a single person or family and their food choices. As I talked to colleagues at local community health organizations and researchers from the University of Illinois my focus began to shift. Instead of feeling the need to ACT, I felt the need to LISTEN and LEARN.
In the last 18 months, I have learned a great deal about childhood obesity from the members of C-U Fit Families. Every member offers a different perspective on childhood wellness and obesity prevention and adds to the collective knowledge of the group. So when Dr. Napoleon Knight attended a C-U Fit Families meeting last fall, I was eager to hear what he had to say.

Dr. Knight is a physician the the VP/Assoc. Medical Director of Quality at Carle Foundation Hospital, and he looks at childhood obesity through the lens of a health care provider and administrator. At the December C-U Fit Families meeting he talked about how obesity impacts practices at the hospital. He explained how the hospital has to order larger beds, make special accomodations for imaging devices like CT scans, and install special lifts to assist in transporting overweight patients. He added that in recent years, the hospital has seen an increase in job-related injuries to staff who are transporting or moving overweight patients. As a result, the hospital has had to take additional steps to protect their staff.

Dr. Knight's comments made me think about the societal implcations of childhood obesity. In February, I sat down with him to learn more. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
I asked Dr. Knight why he was concerned about childhood obesity. He replied, "I see childhood obesity as an epidemic in our community and in the United States of America today. It is an epidemic that is starting to get attention, but it's been under recognized for far too long."

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Next, I asked Dr. Knight about his vision for community health, specifically childhood health and wellness. In his opinion, what could our community do to reverse this trend and prevent childhood obesity?

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In response to his comments, I asked Dr. Knight how Champaign-Urbana can achieve this vision of childhood wellness.

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Dr. Knight went on to explain that supporting childhood wellness involves the entire community. He talked about new partners coming together in innovative ways.

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Prior to my conversation with Dr. Knight, I hadn't considered how employers benefit from a healthy community and healthy children. Dr. Knight pointed out that parents of healthy children take less sick time and employers have lower health-care-related expenses.

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Dr. Knight's insights were enlightening and renewed my conviction to childhood wellness and obesity prevention. My experiences with C-U Fit Families have taught me a great deal about shared responsibility and collective energy. As a member of a group, I know I am not alone...everyone in C-U Fit Families plays an important role. In the words of Dr. Knight, "Working together we can achieve the goal, but it is not going to be quick and fast. It won't necessarily be easy, but in the end, it will be a great thing to achieve."

Molly Delaney, Educational Outreach Director for Illinois Public Media

Learn more about what you can do to fight childhood obesity by contacting C-U Fit Families at cufitfamilies@gmail.com.

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