OPINION: Obesity epidemic requires full initiative in Mississippi

Education and health care leaders from across the state have been in Tupelo this week to attend the 2009 Mississippi Institute on School Health, Wellness, and Safety conference. Sponsored by the Mississippi Alliance for School Health, the gathering provides a unique forum for representatives from state agencies, school districts, non-profits, and associations that are focused on making Mississippi’s schools a healthy place to learn.
The conference occurs on the heels of an announcement I made last week that places Tupelo at the center of Mississippi’s fight against one of the greatest threats to our children’s health: the epidemic of childhood obesity.
The prevalence of obesity in the U.S. has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that we spend almost $150 billion per year on medical costs associated with obesity. Unfortunately, Mississippi leads the nation in percentage of obese adults and has the second highest prevalence of obese children.
Research shows that eight out of 10 obese adolescents will become obese adults. Overweight children are at higher risk for a host of serious, often life-threatening illnesses, including heart disease and stroke, diabetes, asthma and certain types of cancer. While obesity is threatening our children’s lives, it also is compromising their potential inside the classroom. Studies show that children perform better academically when they are physically healthy.
Last Friday, I announced a new initiative to combat childhood obesity in Mississippi. SHAPE, or Strengthening Health and Physical Education, is a program housed at HealthWorks!, the new interactive kids’ health education center, which opened earlier this year in Tupelo. SHAPE will serve as a clearinghouse for motivated teachers, parents, school administrators, and others in the community to connect to the vast array of resources, services, and grants available to fight obesity.
After working on SHAPE for the past five years, I appreciated the opportunity to announce the program’s plan to partner with the Health Care Foundation of North Mississippi, which will administer SHAPE from the HealthWorks! building. This natural partnership provides HealthWorks! visitors with the information and resources necessary to build healthy lifestyles for Mississippi’s children using proven techniques and practices.
It is my hope that SHAPE will provide “one-stop shopping” for every public and private entity, organization, funding stream, and resource related to combating obesity. Data monitoring and research will need to be a key component for determining which strategies are effective, and SHAPE’s goal is to provide the necessary tools for those interested in implementing successful programs.
Not all of the problems that come with obesity can be solved by implementing an effective program at school or by visiting an interactive learning center like HealthWorks!. We need to dramatically alter our lifestyles and redefine what actually comprises a healthy diet. We must increase exercise and encourage our children to step away from video games and the television set and to become more active.
These are changes that will take years to integrate into our daily lives, but they are critical if we are to stop this generation from becoming the first in a century with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. HealthWorks! and SHAPE represent an encouraging start in helping focus on the lifestyle changes we need and providing us with the tools necessary to change the way Mississippi thinks about health, nutrition, and exercise.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker is a Tupelo resident. Contact him at 555 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510-2403, or call (202) 224-6253, or by email at http://wicker.senate.gov/public/.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker