For years, Louisiana has been known as the unhealthiest state in the nation. One main contributing factor was its high obesity rate. But, Louisiana’s overall health has improved over the last year, moving from dead last to number 49 in the United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings 2007. In fact, Louisiana’s obesity rate dropped by 12 percent over the past year, and was the only state to see a decrease of over three percent.
Louisiana’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Recently, this state was selected as one of only 15 to receive a $110,000 award as part of the National Governor’s Association’s Healthy Kids, Healthy America program. This grant is geared toward childhood obesity prevention in schools. “With these funds, we will be able to assist schools with the wellness policies implementation required by the federal government, which went into effect in 2006,” explained Pam Romero, coordinator of the Louisiana Council on Obesity Prevention & Management (Louisiana Obesity Council).
Romero says that some schools and communities were having trouble with implementing these federal policies, which address physical education, physical activity, nutrition and developing a wellness council to oversee the policies. “The wellness policy is basically providing the tools to the schools to help fight the obesity epidemic,” she explained.
While Louisiana’s obesity rate has declined, it is still at a dangerously high level. Currently, around 62 percent of the state’s adults are obese or overweight. About 17 percent of Louisiana’s children are overweight, and an equal percentage are at risk for being overweight. “So, you are looking at somewhere close to 30 percent of children who are overweight or at risk for being overweight,” Romero said.
But, on the positive side, the state’s obesity rate has declined. Romero credits the collaborative efforts between many public and private organizations for making an impact. Among the state-initiated health programs are Lighten Up Louisiana, the Governor’s Games and the Elementary Fitness Meet.
The Lighten Up Louisiana program targets healthy eating and physical activity. Citizens can form teams of two to ten people, or sign up as individuals. Team competition recognizes achievement in weight loss and accumulated activity. “They can keep track of what they eat, the activities they do, and then convert them into miles,” explained Rudy Macklin, executive director of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. “And, we rank them against other teams across the state.”
This year, the program has a brand new website designed by Core Health Technology of Canada to motivate adults and children toward adopting healthier lifestyles. A demo of the new interactive site is accessible at http://www.corehealthtech.com/corecommunity/demo.htm. People can choose from over 50 activities on the site. With the program, participants can keep track of their weight and activities with a body mass index (BMI) tracker, nutrition tracker, hydration tracker and fitness tracker.
This past year, 10,000 kids and 25,000 adults participated in Lighten Up. Macklin says the goal with this new website is to get the numbers up even higher. “We are trying to make this new site fresh every year,” he said, “because, one of the problems with Louisianans is motivation. They don’t stick with one program long enough. So, with this new website, it’s all interactive, and it keeps you motivated the whole time.”
Another popular program is the Governor’s Games, which consists of 14 Olympic-style amateur sporting events involving participants from throughout the state. Anyone from eight to 80 years old can compete in such sports as basketball, baseball, volleyball, soccer, boxing, tennis, swimming and karate. The games kick off in March with volleyball, and go through August with other sports.
For the past 13 years, Louisiana has run the Elementary Fitness Meet, which is modeled after the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge. In the meet, students ages 7 to 11 from 30 parishes participate in seven fitness events. The top two boys and top two girls from each school compete in a preliminary parish meet, then those top finishers move on to the state championship event in Baton Rouge. “It just worked out well, because a lot of kids don’t play basketball, track, football, baseball or the major sports,” Macklin said. “But, we tell them, ‘You can be a fitness champion.’ We’ve had kids who get called ‘nerds’ and kids with low esteem win the championship. And, it really does a great deal for their self esteem being the champion.”
The goal with the state’s fitness programs is to make Louisianans more physically active and less likely to become obese. “Around fitness circles, they don’t use the word ‘exercise’ anymore,” Macklin explained. “It’s about physical activity. All of these programs make these kids more physically active. We just make sure that they are having a good time first to make them want to be active.”
Another goal is to reduce Louisiana’s obesity rate. “Through many organizations, we are hoping that by the year 2015, we will reverse the obesity epidemic in children,” Romero said.