Phys Ed Dept: A $3 Million Push to Get Kids to Hit the School Gym

Childhood obesity rates have stabilized lately, but are still at epidemic proportions, with grim implications for the future. Overweight kids are at increased risk for disease, especially cardiovascular disease and diabetes. More significantly, overweight kids are far more likely to remain fat as adults, with all the attendant health problems obesity entails.

According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, 42 percent of children in L.A. County are overweight or obese, an appalling statistic by any measure. A study by the Children’s Defense Fund has concluded that children in low-income neighborhoods are nine times more likely to be packing extra pounds than their contemporaries in more affluent areas.

This is due to a number of factors: Healthy food, including fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and cold deep water fish, costs more than foods laden with high calories, high saturated fat, and high fructose corn syrup that that fill the shelves and freezers in dollar stores. Since obesity is caused by a calorie imbalance, getting more physical activity would counteract eating too much, but in poorer neighborhoods, outdoor activities are often severely limited by not enough park space or recreational facilities. Often, safety is a factor as well. In gang-dominated neighborhoods, simply venturing outside for a post-supper walk could be hazardous.

The UCLA Health System and the Sound Body Sound Mind Foundation have partnered to fight childhood obesity with a practical solution that has produced demonstrated results: offering financially challenged middle and high schools health-club-grade fitness equipment paired with courses that coax adolescent students into a range of physical activities.

Students at that age are very image conscious. Plentiful exercise helps them to look better, feel better, think more clearly, and have more energy. Inculcating healthy habits is more than preventive medicine. It boosts student competence and has the potential of contributing to economic growth. Sound Body Sound Mind’s $3 million grant will allow UCLA Health to expand a program that has already shown a 40 percent increase in the number of students who pass the California state exam for physical fitness.

Getting kids to exercise more is one thriving track in the multifaceted philanthropic push against childhood obesity. Funders are helping build playgrounds, underwriting sports programs, and much more. We're still waiting for big grants to unglue kids from their phones and handheld video games, which is prerequisite to being more active, but we're betting those are right around the corner. 

“By encouraging students to embrace fitness in their adolescent years, we intend to address bad habits and inactivity before they become an integral part of their lives.” said Dr. David Feinberg, CEO of the UCLA Health System.

For more than 50 years, UCLA Health System has been engaged in medical research and teaching as it cares for patients. Its clinics throughout Los Angeles treat a million and half patients annually, along with more than 80,000 through its hospitals.

The foundation took its name from the Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote that “mens sana in corpore sano,” ("a sound mind in a sound body") was first on a list of what was desirable in life. Philanthropists Cindy and Bill Simon founded the Sound Body Sound Mind Foundation in 1999 to help students have healthier lifestyles. To date, it has donated exercise equipment to 89 Los Angeles schools where the gear is used by more than 92,000 students annually.