Groups want 20 minutes of physical activity in elementary schools, other steps against obesity

A coalition of health advocacy groups devoted to fighting childhood obesity wants lawmakers to call for 20 consecutive minutes of physical activity a day for elementary school students, expand the availability of school athletic facilities to community members, and create a state council on childhood and adult obesity.

The recently formed Connecticut Coalition Against Childhood Obesity also wants legislators to add food and wellness indicators to strategic school profiles and implement a coordinated approach to school health. Leaders of the group announced their legislative agenda during a press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford Thursday.

Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut, noted that this year’s legislative session is focused on education, and said addressing obesity and nutrition issues should be a key part.

“It’s really critical that policymakers bring childhood obesity into the discussion,” she said, adding that hunger, lack of exercise and the stigma associated with being obese make it harder for children to do well in school.

“This is a huge piece to the achievement gap that we can narrow,” Nolan said.

Half the students in the state’s public schools passed their physical fitness test last school year, reports the State Department of Education. Those tests measure flexibility, abdominal strength, endurance, upper-body strength and aerobic endurance. About one in 10 elementary schools does not have recess, according to the SDE’s most recent report on physical activity.

Dr. Robert Dudley, a pediatrician at Community Health Center in New Britain, said that nearly one in three children are obese or overweight. At current rates, he said, “This generation will be the first generation to live shorter lifespans than their parents.”

While schools face pressure to improve test scores, Dudley said it’s critical to find creative ways to make sure students are physically active while in school.

During the press conference, Sen. Toni N. Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee pledged her support for the legislation the coalition is seeking, and Public Health Committee Co-Chairwoman Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain, spoke of the need to address childhood obesity.

Dr. Madhu Mathur, a Stamford Hospital physician who leads an obesity task force, said childhood obesity programs focus on the number 5210: Children should have five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, no more than two hours of screen time, one hour of moderate physical activity, and zero sugary beverages. Despite efforts to fight obesity, she said, she still sees many children who are overweight or obese and face health problems because of it, including a 10-year-old patient who has hypertension and high liver enzymes.