Reversing long trend, obesity rates in pre-schoolers fall in Florida

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SARASOTA - After years of the trend going the wrong way, Florida is one of 19 states that saw obesity rates fall in low-income pre-schoolers, and some health officials believe the tide has turned in the fight against one of the top contributors to preventable death in the U.S.

None too soon. "This generation of American children is likely to have a shorter lifespan than their parents because of the impact of obesity," says Keri Ellingstad, Director of the Community Health Improvement Partnership in Sarasota County.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got numbers from 43 states or U.S. territories. Nineteen saw a decrease in obesity levels in children 2-4 years old. Twenty-one held steady, and three had slight increases.

A variety of factors has keyed the turnaround. Education efforts become better coordinated at different levels of government, and have convinced parents to get their kids away from TVs and video games and outside for more exersise. The Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program has steered mothers to more healthful food choices, including breastfeeding.

It may be no coincidence that the CDC has also reported that children still breastfeeding at 12 months of age rose from 16% to 27% between 2000 and 2010. "We know that breastfeeding has a protective factor," Ellingstad says. "Kids that are breastfed are less likely to become obese later in life."

Those who advocate physical fitness hopes the emphasis will grow in schools. "The students that are physically fit are much better students," says Dan Kennedy, Headmaster at Sarasota Military Academy, which puts all its students through rigorous exercises, telling students even before they enroll, "there are a lot of push-ups in your future. At age 67, Kennedy lives his own advice, running 60 miles a week, and says that physical education does not detract focus on the all-important FCATs. "They get better grades," Kennedy says. "It's better all the way around if the kids are fit."

The Department of Health has worked with daycare centers to reach kids, and their parents, at earlier ages. Next comes outreach programs at workplaces, where educators try to drum the message into adults, who not only set an example for their children's behavior, but also provide their food.