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DuPage activists target obesity with new local data

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

An assortment of attributes sets DuPage County apart from other places, but there’s at least one challenge it shares with the rest of the U.S.

Newly compiled figures suggest that kids here are adopting the same unhealthy lifestyle habits as their peers everywhere, mirroring a national trend toward lifelong obesity. Figures suggest that in the southwest portion of DuPage, 29 percent of kids are overweight and 13 percent are obese.

Aware that childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled over the past three decades, local activists were expecting that.

“The numbers basically indicate the previous supposition, where 1 in 3 kindergartners is overweight or obese,” said Ann Marchetti, director of Fighting Obesity Reaching healthy Weight Among Residents of DuPage.

The data place area children on a path that could result in today’s children having more serious weight problems than present-day adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of obesity in Illinois is 26.5 percent — precisely midway between Mississippi’s high of 34.4 percent and Colorado’s low, at 18.6 percent.

FORWARD, a partnership spanning seven northern Illinois counties, has taken aim at countering the patterns that cause weight trouble to begin in childhood. Launched 18 months ago, the effort’s first task was achieving a comprehensive snapshot of DuPage kids’ weight.

Using figures gathered from state-mandated school physicals and placed in a secure database, the group gathered information on 11,496 students from across the region.

“It was a really smart random sample,” Marchetti said.

Judy Ellertson, executive director of the Fry Family YMCA, knows Naperville is not exempt from the collective weight gain.

“There’s certain areas of affluence in our community, and we find that we are having the same kinds of problems here in Naperville as the rest of the country. We are no different,” said Ellertson, who is representing the Heritage YMCA Group on the FORWARD project.

She sees the same needs locally as public health advocates do elsewhere, and the same contributing factors at work. Families eat fewer homemade meals than they used to, opting for higher-calorie fast food. Kids keep busy with extracurricular activities and don’t spend much time in physical activities outdoors.

“We used to have the television, but now it seems you’re always in front of some kind of screen,” Ellertson said. “We don’t go out and play anymore ... There’s more calories going in than going out.”

FORWARD will be disseminating and assessing the data in preparation to formulate policy recommendations aimed at systemic change. Marchetti said the likely areas of focus will include such things as school lunch programs, playgrounds, safe transportation between home and school, and the selections available in school and workplace vending machines.

“We’ll be looking at trying to make changes so that the healthy choice is the easy choice for DuPage County,” she said.

The project’s participants recognize that any effort to change a population’s habits is going to involve a learning curve.

“I think everybody wants to be healthy, they aspire to be healthy, but it takes a lot of work and discipline,” Ellertson said. “Once you get started, it becomes easier. It’s part of your daily life.”

Change will not come overnight, but the consortium members are in it for the long haul. When she pitches the cause in public speaking engagements, Marchetti often notes that the nation’s weight problem began with cultural changes that came about more than 40 years ago.

“It’s going to take us a generation to turn this thing around,” said Marchetti, whose goal is to bring the message to all 32 partner communities in the next three to five years. “DuPage is so diverse, you can’t do it one way. You’ve got to go from the top down and the bottom up.”

The work also will pull in a broad base of stakeholders. Among the local entities working on the initiative are School Districts 203 and 204, Edward Hospital, and park and recreation agencies.

“Like they say, it takes a village,” Ellertson said.

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