HBO's 'The Weight of the Nation' shows active kids learn more

Physically active kids learn more, an HBO series says.

JESSICA DIMMOCK | HBO

Physically active kids learn more, an HBO series says.

Did you catch The Weight of the Nation, HBO's stunning documentary series about the obesity epidemic?

If not, you can check it out anytime, and for free, online at hbo.com/weightofthenation.

Yes, it's four parts, and that title does make it sound like you should get college credit for watching.

But give it a chance. There's as much mystery and drama here as anywhere on TV.

For example: How did childhood obesity rates triple in one generation?

If you feel a smug remark coming on about the overfed offspring of fat parents who sit in front of video screens eating Cheetos all day, watch Part 3.

Given the news lately about how kids are doing on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, I was struck particularly by an observation from Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

"Principals will say, well, I can't increase the number of P.E. classes, because I've got to get the math and reading scores up. That's really misguided. If kids are getting physical activity on most or all days, they're going to learn better in class.''

I wondered how much time kids are spending in gym these days, so I asked Peggy Johns, the supervisor of health education for Pinellas schools.

Short answer: Not enough.

Long answer: Under Florida law, kids start out strong in elementary school, where they have at least 150 minutes a week of phys ed. But that tapers off until by high school, they're required to have just one semester over the course of four years.

But wait! It gets worse!

It's crazy easy to get out of high school gym. All it takes is a note from mom saying her child gets plenty of activity outside school. "No documentation is needed,'' Johns sighed.

And get this: Kids who flunk an FCAT are exempted from P.E. so they have time for remedial classes.

This despite a raft of scientific studies around the world correlating activity with academic achievement — and better cognitive function at all ages.

Johns told me that back in 2007, Pinellas compared fitness scores with FCAT scores from third grade on up. For boys and girls at all ages and economic circumstances the general pattern held: The more fit a child is, the better the FCAT score.

And we aren't just talking about kids being slightly dimmer than one might like. Heart disease and diabetes are striking earlier than ever as obesity rises, meaning that this could be the first generation with a shorter life span than the one before it.

If the human suffering angle doesn't grab you, consider how already bloated health care costs will grow even more to care for all these weighty problems.

Let's be clear: Gym class alone will not make kids smarter and slimmer. These are complex problems defying easy fixes.

But given the many hours kids spend in their custody, the schools are a big part of the puzzle. Parents, who by their own example are their children's most powerful health lessons, are essential.

Caring citizens and officials could question whether kids are over-tested, or if they might be better served with more P.E. and more nourishing lunches. Even if it costs taxpayers a little more.

Business, too, needs to step up — consider the high-fat, high-sugar "food'' that is peddled on TV shows aimed at kids.

Much of the HBO series is devastating. But it also is action-oriented, packed with ideas to tackle the forces that are weighing down in so many ways.

Whether you're concerned about the societal implications of childhood obesity, or just your own belt size, I think you'll find the program enlightening. In the fullest sense of the word.

Charlotte can be reached at sutton@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8425.

HBO's 'The Weight of the Nation' shows active kids learn more

06/01/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 1, 2012 5:30am]

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