Obesity Drops Among Philadelphia Students: Are Programs Working?

Improved nutrition, nutrition education and physical activity programs may be responsible for obesity decline.

Schoolchildren are less obese now than they were four years ago in Philadelphia, and they're part of a larger national trend showing a decline in childhood obesity. (Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images)

Sep 7, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Researchers are cautiously optimistic about a study showing that obesity rates among schoolchildren in Philadelphia have dropped almost five percent in in the last four years.

The results could mean that school-based health programs focused on nutrition and exercise are actually working.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that obesity and severe obesity dropped slightly in Philadelphia public schools from 2006 to 2010. Obesity prevalence was 21.5 percent from 2006 to 2007, and 20.5 percent from 2009 to 2010.

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In those same years severe obesity dropped from 8.5 percent to 7.9 percent. The figures were taken from body mass index measurements of Philadelphia schoolchildren age 5 to 18.

The decreases in obesity and severe obesity weren’t seen evenly across the board; the highest numbers were found among Hispanic boys and African-American girls, and the lowest among Asian girls. After seeing a decline from 2006 to 2009, numbers leveled off from 2009 to 2010.

Some of the figures mirror statistics seen across the country, the researchers noted. But nationally, obesity rates from 2009 to 2010 were actually lower than in Philadelphia.

A few city-centric studies have shown similar trends in childhood obesity. In late 2011 the CDC found obesity rates among New York City school kids dropped 5.5 percent from 2006 to 2011. There, too, interventions included upgrading nutrition and nutrition education, plus adding more time for physical activity.

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While the authors of this study didn’t draw a direct line from school programs to dropping obesity levels, they did say that more effort is going into local programs focused on getting kids to eat better and move more.

Philadelphia, for example, has several such programs in place, including the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education TRACKS program EAT.RIGHT.NOW.  In 2004 sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages were taken out of school vending machines, and in 2006, a School Wellness Policy was passed that targeted exercise and nutrition education.

The “cautious” part of the optimism? That’s researchers saying we’re not out of the woods yet.  

“Continued surveillance is required to clarify whether we are seeing minor inconsistencies in a continuing crisis or a true change in the epidemic,” the authors wrote. “In either case, the prevalence of unhealthy weight remains unacceptably high among public school children in Philadelphia, and the evidence that some groups are facing exceptionally high health risks associated with obesity is sobering.”

Should parents or schools be responsible for combatting the trend in childhood obesity? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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