Residents of South Carolina’s capital city cringe when statistics are tossed around concerning childhood obesity. In fact, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation ranks South Carolina 49th with 39.2 percent of our children obese or overweight. But obesity, in children or adults, is not the only indicator of health and wellness. There is much research that supports a condition termed “Normal Weight Obesity.” Mayo Clinic Researcher and Cardiologist Francisco Lopez is a leading expert in this research that uses the Body Mass Index to evaluate health and wellness. It can be daunting to decide, in the midst of fads and information overload, what the best lifestyle decisions are.
Thanks to numerous agencies and individuals who have joined the effort to increase wellness in the Midlands, attitudes are changing and options are improving. A consistent theme for these concerned citizens is that it is extremely easy to join the movement to make healthier choices.
Beth Franco is the executive director of Eat Smart Move More South Carolina, a statewide private non-profit agency. Its mission is to lead a unified movement to make the healthy choice, the easy choice. One of the three strategic focus areas is community action, where agency members work directly with coalitions and chapters that have a desire to make a change in the community but need how-to guidance. “For example, concerned citizens who feel unsafe being physically active in a park that is not well-lit come to us, and we help them take the steps to improve that environment,” Beth says.
ESMMSC also places an emphasis on advocacy at a local and state level. The organization encourages policies that increase access to healthy food and physical activity. ESMMSC supports and promotes state bills that increase access to healthy, affordable foods and access to safe places to be physically active. The third area of focus is youth engagement and youth empowerment through programs like the HYPE project.
At one time a part of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, ESMMSC became its own entity in 2007. Along with partners such as DHEC, SCBCBS Foundation, USC and local community coalitions, ESMMSC continues the work of promoting healthy eating and active living. Today they have more than 1,800 partners, from the corporate level to the neighborhood level, and they work with 40 of South Carolina’s 46 counties.
An example of ESMMSC’s commitment to increase access to healthy eating active living is the 5-2-1-0 Let’s Go! Childhood Obesity Tool Kit. The toolkit was developed in partnership with ESMMSC, South Carolina Medical Association Childhood obesity Taskforce and the South Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation –– and can be used by pediatricians and primary care doctors to engage the child and parent to examine healthy behaviors. Pediatricians and their staff guide the patient and parent through a simple, colorful questionnaire, answering questions such as: “How many times a week does your child eat dinner at the table together with the family; Does your child have a computer in the room where he/she sleeps; and, how many servings of fruits or vegetables does your child eat a day?”
The medical professional and family talk about their answers, then move on to the final thought question. “Based on your answers, is there one thing you would like to help your child change now?” Patient and guardians then leave equipped with several colorful brochures and a solid plan.
Meg Stanley has always exercised and placed an emphasis on healthy living. She has found herself more and more involved in volunteer work that focuses on children, to the benefit of many in her community. Meg says, “I wanted to move away from the thought, ‘Oh my gosh what am I going to feed them’ to ‘Make a plan and a menu. This is not too difficult.’”
One step she chose to take was to join the Brockman Wellness Council at Brockman Elementary, a Richland One school where her children attend. This council, led by physical education teacher Lisa Curtis, is based on the Alliance for a Healthier Generation model. One of their successful programs is the Bears on Track 5K Running Club, with which Meg volunteers. The club of 3rd through 5th graders meets once a week to train, and they commit to run two more times on their own, keeping up with their mileage. Numerous students choose to train more than that, and often it becomes a family event. The coaches are volunteer parents and teachers, and the season ends with everyone participating in a community 5K run. Finishing the race is so exciting that numerous Bears on Track sign up for additional community races.
Lisa says, “The children love to run together. When we began this club we handed out forms to sign up. I hoped to enroll 25 students. Before breakfast duty the next morning we had more than that. I recruited more volunteers and capped it at 40.”
Meg’s work and volunteering keep her busy because many people desire more knowledge and understanding about how to achieve a healthy lifestyle. “I often hear people say, ‘I don’t have time for exercise or I have to go to Whole Foods for everything, and my budget doesn’t support this.’ Get rid of the excuses and false assumptions. Park a little farther away, take the steps, walk to lunch and stand up at your desk to accomplish daily movement. A rotisserie chicken, bag of already-sliced apples, and some sort of vegetable that is steamed for 10 minutes is just as quick and usually less expensive than fast food.”
Other simple tips include establishing a dinner and sleep routine. Is your child too sleepy in the morning to eat? Back up bedtime. Wake up a few minutes earlier. If push comes to shove, make a healthy smoothie for the ride to school.
Meg says, “Awareness is increasing. We need to continue to be vigilant in schools and as a community. It takes 10 years to make a change. Statistics show that our children right now will be the first generation to live shorter life spans than their parents.”
Thanks to diverse community and individual action and passion, the trend can change in South Carolina.