As their peers cheered them on, campers at a Mesa school this week raced against one another in a relay designed to increase their heart rates and get them moving.
Members of the two teams took turns running from cone to cone with a ball in their hands, trying to be the first group to have everyone complete the task.
In the end: a deafening roar exploded as the teams tied.
At this Mesa Parks and Recreation class, sponsored by Cardon Children’s Medical Center, they’re learning how to be “a healthier you” and to battle against the “epidemic” that is childhood obesity.
Obesity among children continues to increase in Arizona, according to several recently released reports.
Arizona is ranked 17th in the number of children who can be classified as obese or overweight, according to the 2010 “F as in Fat” report, which used statistics from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health.
The children may be following their role models. Using 2009 figures for adults, the state saw its obesity rate grow 1.5 percent, with 25.8 percent classified as obese. The lowest ranking in the country was Colorado, at 19.1 percent. The highest was Mississippi at 33.8 percent.
Obesity was classified using body mass index (BMI) figures. Arizona is certainly not the worst state in the country, but it’s also not improving. And the national study — commissioned by the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — says efforts to address obesity in the United States have risen “exponentially” as American acknowledge the issue of obesity in everyone, and especially in children.
The first-year parks-and-rec class is one of those steps. The nearly six-week summer camp introduced the 48 campers to a number of activities: rock climbing, yoga, ice skating, water aerobics, games and the dance fitness program Zumba, said instructor George Ogilvie. In addition, nutritionists from Cardon and the Mesa Unified School District visited weekly to talk to them about choosing healthy lifestyles and foods.
At the beginning of the camp, the parents of the 8- to 13-year-olds met with staff to learn more about the lessons planned. The students took part in testing, from BMI to cholesterol levels. All that culminated Tuesday as they students and their parents met with camp staff to redo the tests and see what results may have been achieved over the course of the camp.
“I would hope they would learn activity builds a healthy heart. I would hope all of them would eat healthier,” Ogilvie said.
Molly Lance, 12, was already active before joining the summer camp. She enjoyed soccer, basketball and swimming. Molly said her mom found out about the camp and thought it would be a better choice than a camp with board games and crafts.
Molly said it’s been fun and can already feel and see a difference.
“It’s not just me eating healthier. Me and my family are getting more active and eating healthier foods,” she said between games on Monday. “I sleep more. I’m more active of course. I’m feeling my arms and legs tired. I’m getting a good workout.”
Incorporating 60 minutes of activity into daily life and cutting back on “screen” time such as video games and television are proven methods to address weight and health, said Adrienne Udarbe, a registered dietician with the state Department of Health Services.
“We have a lot of data on kids not doing anything,” she said. “We have data showing an average two to four hours of screen time a day. … That has got to drastically decrease.”
While the campers are pretty active four to five hours a day, Udarbe said activity can be broken up into 10- to 20-minute increments to get the recommended hour.
And in Arizona, it can be done during the summer — with some creativity.
“Go swimming or go out in the evening,” she said. “The other eight to nine months we have beautiful hiking weather and gorgeous climates to the north and the south, so we have a lot to choose from.”
Adults play a big role in helping children stay healthy, as does access to activity. Gone are the days when kids would go and spend hours on end at a park unsupervised.
“Environment plays a huge factor of that but it’s also awareness, attitude and perception of addressing the problem as well,” Udarbe said. “It starts in the home, but it can’t be one thing. It’s very complex. While parents are critical in creating the healthy habits, it has to be healthy lifestyles as a family — healthy meals, teach cooking, parents doing outdoor activity. When parents role model healthy habits their children are that much more successful.”
Dr. Scott Rigden, who has a private practice in Chandler and focuses on bariatrics, said he’s seen a number of parents come in with their children to work on their weight and health issues together. That’s a big step in the right direction, he said.
It’s also an issue he’s seen rising.
“The last three to four years, for the first time in my 30 years of practice, we’re seeing Type 2 diabetes in youngsters we’re used to seeing in middle age,” he said. Type 2 diabetes is tied to obesity.
“People are coming in because they’ve had a friend or a classmate diagnosed with diabetes. This is a big concern amongst parents with obese children. They realize this is not terribly unusual anymore,” Rigden said. “We have some wonderful moms reading articles and seeing things on PBS and ‘Oprah’ and then deciding to be proactive as parents. They themselves have issues with diabetes or obesity, and they want their children checked and they want to work on it together.”
Family fitness and fun skate night
When: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through August
Where: USA’s Skateland, 7 E. Southern Ave., Mesa
Details: USA’s Skateland is offering free admission Wednesday nights to encourage families to participate in a fitness activity. Skate rental costs extra.
Information: (480) 833-7775 or www.skatelandmesa.com