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We Can! Program Takes Aim at Childhood Obesity

The national partnership wants to create a healthier America

THURSDAY, Nov. 29 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Association of Children's Museums are teaming up on a program to combat the obesity epidemic among America's children.

The program -- called We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition) -- was introduced Thursday in Boston, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh, which have been designated as We Can! cities.

Other We Can! communities include Armstrong County, Pa.; Carson City, Nev.; Gary, Ind.; South Bend, Ind.; and Roswell, Ga.

"I am really confident that this partnership among the federal government, the We Can! program, the Association of Children's Museums and civic organizations is ultimately going to lead to healthier children in the United States, healthier families and better health-care outcomes for everybody," acting U.S. Surgeon General Rear Admiral Dr. Steven K. Galson said during an afternoon teleconference.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, said childhood obesity has reached "crisis" proportions.

"We are facing a crisis, and we must find ways to change the tide that is facing us and affecting our children," Zerhouni said during the teleconference.

There are more than 12.5 million overweight children and teens in the United States. Galson said obesity is a big contributor to such childhood health problems as high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and asthma.

"Chronic diseases cause seven out of 10 deaths," Galson said. "And the costs are staggering."

Galson noted that portion sizes have increased while life in America has become more sedentary. "Our kids are growing up with unhealthy lifestyles, the consequences of which could be with them for the rest of their lives," he said.

"Reversing this epidemic does not have one answer," he added. "It's going to take a concerted action by all of us. We need to focus our activities on prevention -- on what we can do today."

We Can! can be a model for overcoming the challenges of childhood obesity and overweight, Galson said. "Its partnerships are demonstrating how physical activity and sound lifestyle choices can make a difference and how communities can work together to make those lifestyle choices real," he said.

We Can! is an education program to help children aged 8 to 13 years old to maintain a healthy weight. It's being implemented in more than 450 communities in 44 states.

Zerhouni said getting kids away from the TV and the computer is key to improving their health. Increased activity, better food choices and smaller portions complete the arsenal for fighting the obesity epidemic, he said.

The three new We Can! cities announced Thursday are introducing the program to city employees, community groups, corporate wellness programs, health professionals and schools.

While improvement in childhood obesity is vital, the results may not be seen for decades, Galson said.

"It's a national necessity with profound implications -- we all have a stake in the outcome," he said. "The result may not be apparent for many years, but it's going to be a fitter, healthier, more physically active nation in which the epidemic of childhood obesity slows down."

In addition to the Association of Children's Museums, 40 national and corporate partners are starting We Can! programs in community centers, schools, health-care settings, corporate wellness programs and faith-based organizations, officials said.

A study this week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that after increasing for the last 25 years, the prevalence of obesity among adults has not risen in the past few years. Still, 34 percent of Americans aged 20 and older are obese.

"In view of these alarmingly high rates of obesity in all population groups, [the] CDC has made the prevention of obesity one of its top public health priorities," Janet Collins, director of CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, said in a prepared statement. "We are actively working in partnership with state and local public health agencies, the nation's schools, community organizations, businesses, medical systems and faith communities to promote and support healthy eating, physical activity and healthy weight."

More information

To learn more about the We Can! program, visit the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

SOURCES: Nov. 29, 2007, teleconference with acting Surgeon General Rear Admiral Steven K. Galson, M.D., M.P.H.; Elias Zerhouni, M.D., director, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

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