To many people, San Diego conjures up images of tanned, healthy beachgoers, but in reality more than half of the County’s adults are overweight, according to San Diego’s 2012 CDC Community Profile.
Further, roughly 30 percent of San Diego children in grades five, seven and nine are overweight or obese.
With these numbers surpassing national averages, programs for children as young as 2-years-old are being integrated in preschools, after-school care and recreation facilities around San Diego.
Overweight children are 10 times more likely to become overweight adults, yet public school systems continue to cut back on physical eduction. As of 2011, 48 to 68 percent of students nationwide did not take physical education classes in an average week.
According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, 44 percent of schools in the US have made significant cuts in time for physical education and recess since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. The report also added that from 2001 to 2006, the number of days students were required to take P.E. dramatically declined.
To address the growing problem, San Diego County began its Childhood Obesity Initiative in 2006 with the mission of “reducing and preventing childhood obesity through policy, systems, and environmental change.”
The initiative’s Action Plan targets the “most influential” domains in developing a healthy environment:
“The goal is to stop the problem before it begins–to invoke change from the ground up,” said Senior Project Manager of the initiative, Melanie Briones. “We try to show people the importance of health policy so kids don’t need to ‘have better habits’ because they’ve already been building good habits.”
Briones says the plan’s success is founded by its research-driven approach to promoting good health and essential life skills in today’s youth that counter the trends of childhood obesity in the US.
According to a Community Health Statistics brief, 41 percent of San Diego children ages 5 to 11 are physically active less than three days a week, 10 percent of whom reported zero activity.
A youth-based sports fitness program for preschoolers called Amazing Athletes is one of several efforts in San Diego combating this stagnant lifestyle. Spokeswoman for the preschool program Mariko Lamb says it is important to realize how closely related physical fitness is to childhood development.
“A child’s risk for a lifetime of obesity is typically established by the tender young age of five,” Lamb said. “By reaching children early through enrichment programs like ours, we’re able to show kids that physical activity is fun and teach gross motor skill development, healthy habits, promote skills like confidence, teamwork, goal-setting and social skills, and so much more.”
VIDEO: Amazing Athletes teaches sports and good nutrition to preschoolers.
Professor of Public Health John Elder says programs like these are promoting good ideas, but he blames schools for not providing proper physical education and nutrition.
“Kids are in the cafeteria and they go straight for the entree. They go straight for the piece of pizza and the healthy options are pushed to the side,” Elder said. “That mixed with the consumption of sugary liquids is just asking for trouble.”
Elder stresses the need for more good, clean water in schools and the importance of school districts forming relationships with local farms.
San Diego began it’s Farm to Preschool Pilot Program in 2011 that, despite the title, serves preschools through 12th grade. The idea of the program is to source local foods to schools and families, teach nutrition, gardening and food preparation, along with arranging field trips to farms and farmer’s markets.
Elder says schools and health-forward programs are only half the battle, and there is only so much that can be done outside of the home.
“Parents are the best role models for their kids,” Elder said. “But if they’re chowing down and not exercising, then they’re definitely not exercising with their kid and there’s bound to be an issue.”
Parents set the guidelines for their children about where they can go, what they do, what they eat and how much they eat. Elder says in modern American society that can mean staying indoors, watching TV, and eating fast food in large portions.
Cooking at home can be time consuming and healthy foods are thought to be more expensive. With San Diego’s economic inequality deepening in recent years according to the Center on Policy Initiatives, more low-income families are buying less expensive foods. Unfortunately, this often means buying foods with lower nutrient density.
Katie Ferraro, president of the California Dietetic Association’s San Diego District, says the cheaper the food, the lower the quality. This means, despite the lower immediate cost, the price these people pay in the long run is much more. And they pay with their health.
“Heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes are directly related to food choices made or not made throughout the course of ones life,” Ferraro said. “And childhood is crucial.”
According to the CDC, consequences of childhood obesity include but are not limited to:
In addition to physical damage, obese children have a higher risk of social and psychological problems like discrimination and low self-esteem.
Kevin Nguyen, a rugby player at Long Beach State, grew up in San Diego and has struggled with being overweight all his life.
“Back when I was little it was uncomfortable,” Nguyen said. “I used to be called fat a lot, and worthless sometimes because I’m fat.”
SLIDESHOW: College athlete Kevin Nguyen shares his story of growing up overweight.
Nguyen says through high school he lacked confidence and wasn’t able to find himself, and get healthy and fit until college.
Overweight and obese children are not only more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, but their adult obesity tends to be more severe.
Nguyen says he’s lucky he was able to make the changes he has to his health.
“I can easily see people taking extremes to lose weight. I was one of them, and it’s just as bad for you as being overweight to begin with,” Nguyen said. “You have to be good to yourself to feel good about yourself.”
In the four years that Faith Tyssee has been alive, she’s spent more time in a hospital than most adults.
Faith was diagnosed with Down syndrome while in her mother’s womb. She was born with a two-chambered heart, which led to open heart surgery at four months old. In addition to her heart condition, she has had several blood antibody transfusions for a rare blood disorder and a hip replacement for hip dysplasia.
With all of these physical barriers and disabilities, there is a chance that Faith will be a part of the 86.2 percent of kids with Down syndrome who are overweight or obese.
“That’s one of our biggest concerns,” Faith’s mother, Pauline Tyssee, said. “So we definitely want to keep her active.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the rate of obesity among children with disabilities is 30 percent; 12 percent higher than it is for children without disabilities. The highest rates are found among kids with Down syndrome, spina bifida and autism.
Each of these disabilities holds their own set of characteristics and risk factors that can lead to obesity. AbilityPath.org, an online community for parents of special needs, published seven unique obesity risk factors for kids with disabilities, with barriers to exercise ranking number two on the list.
Indeed, getting physical activity is more challenging for kids with special needs than it is for ‘typical’ kids.
“The trick with exercise for these kiddos is, that they mostly have limitation in movement so they are sometimes restricted in the activities they can be part of,” pediatric physical therapist Susan Smith said.
“Some places will accommodate ankle foot orthoses, use of walkers, crutches and wheelchairs, but some can’t or don’t know how.”
But mobility issues aren’t stopping many of these kids from staying active.
Despite her recent hip surgery, Faith leaps around the living room dancing and attempting headstands – acting as if nothing ever happened.
“Faith did tumbling when she was two-years- old, she plays soccer and she’s been swimming since she was born, essentially,” Tyssee says. “She’s very active. The organized soccer is just now starting and she wants to dance and do gymnastics, so that’s the next step.”
VIDEO: Seven-year-old Bastian works through the challenges of cerebral palsy with the help of karate.
San Diego has a variety of sports leagues and organizations that give kids the opportunity to stay active throughout their disability and most importantly, have fun and feel normal.
Pediatric physical therapist Jodi Wright’s love for kids has led her into the world of special needs sports. Wright coaches wheelchair basketball at the Adaptive Sports and Recreation Association in National City and helps out with wheelchair sports camps every year.
Wright says the basketball games and the camps not only help kids stay physically active but psychologically positive as well. At the camps, they’re not singled out as the only kids in a wheelchair, like they often are in school.
“If they know other people like them, they develop that camaraderie and then it pushes them to do more because then they see other people and the stuff they are doing,” Wright said, adding that they often develop the attitude of ‘wow, if so-and-so can do that, I can do it too.’
Hayden Welsh is a six year old with spina bifida – one of the disorders with a very high rate of obesity. Like Wright’s basketball players, Hayden is in a wheelchair due to his condition, but that doesn’t stop him from playing baseball with Miracle League San Diego. His mother, Ashley Welsh, says that learning how to throw the ball and swing a bat has helped him grow physically stronger.
“He also acts like he is running even though his cousin is pushing him to the bases he runs them out with his arms,” Welsh said.
Welsh believes the mental strength that Hayden is gaining through playing baseball is priceless.
“Over all it’s teaching him to never give up even though it will be tough,” Welsh said. “The best part is his smile and the happiness it brings him I still tear up every time he is up to bat knowing that a medical condition will never hold my child from doing what he wants.”
Yes, there is still a great chance that kids with special needs and disabilities will become overweight in their adult lives – that much is inevitable due to the genetics of their disorders. The opportunities for them to engage in physical activity for purposes of exercise and fun, however, are helping many kids in San Diego overcome this obstacle.
Tyssee, Welsh and Wright agree that no one should underestimate their kids just because they have a special condition – they are completely capable of anything they desire.
SLIDESHOW: Despite her Down syndrome diagnosis, Faith still enjoys playing soccer.
When an airport security agent in the Oakland airport saw Wright’s basketball players, the agent told Wright that the sight of them in their wheelchairs ‘broke her heart.’
Wright had a ready response for the agent:
“Don’t say it’s sad that they’re in a chair! They just went and played in a basketball tournament that’s awesome!”