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Public policy changes needed to get Massachusetts children physically active

CONTACT: Jane Lane

BOSTON, May 17, 2012 -

Public policy changes needed to get Massachusetts children physically active

Communities, schools and government must work together to create sustainable programs to fight childhood obesity


“It wasn’t that long ago that here in America, our children led reasonably healthy lives. They walked to school, had recess every day and gym class several times a week, and spent afternoons playing for hours outside.  Home-cooked meals were the norm, fast food was a special treat and snacking between meals was against the rules. But today, for many children, all that has changed.”     First Lady Michelle Obama, whose national initiative, Let’s Move, helps kids and parents learn how they can stay healthy and active  

One in three children in this country is overweight or obese. Childhood obesity rates in Massachusetts have increased for the second year in a row, while the state has the lowest percentage of high school students who meet the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity daily requirement. 

Addressing overweight and obesity issues require a focus on both nutrition and physical activity, although less attention has been given to physical activity despite the fact that physically active children perform better in schools academically and have higher self-esteem.

At the May 16th Massachusetts Health Policy Forum, sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and The Boston Foundation,  Jennifer Sacheck, Asst. Prof., Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University presented an issue brief entitled, ‘Overweight and Obesity in Massachusetts: A Focus on Physical Activity Costs, Consequences and Opportunities for Change.’ Sacheck, who co-authored the brief with Amy Glynn, a MPP/MBA candidate at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, noted that more than a quarter of health care costs in this country are attributable to obesity, with overweight children costing an average $200 more each year than their healthy weight counterparts.  

“In Massachusetts, obesity rates remain steady, physical inactivity is rampant, diabetes and other chronic illnesses are on the rise, and the economic burden of overweight and obesity is real,” according to Sacheck.   “We have minimal policies in place to support daily physical activity and our low state ranking in high school physical activity levels demonstrate the magnitude of the problem within our state. “

While Massachusetts is not ranked as poorly as the rest of the nation for obesity rates, 13 percent of children in this state are classified as obese and a staggering 17 percent of children aged 2-5 from low-income families are already obese.  Last year, the MA Department of Public Health released a report on our children’s health behaviors and documented huge gaps between calories consumed and expended, further fueling the obesity epidemic.

While physical activity is necessary to expend energy and consume calories, the Kaiser State Health Facts report that Massachusetts is statistically tied with South Carolina for the worst ranking for high school students failing to achieve the recommended amount of daily physical activity, with female students almost twice as likely to be physically inactive. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reviewed 50 studies and concluded that physical activity improves students’ academic performance, including grades and standardized test scores. The CDC also noted that students who engage in aerobic physical activity three or more times a week have better grades than those who are not physically active.

In order to ensure that all communities are implementing policies that address childhood obesity – not just communities with ample resources – state legislation is needed, according to Sacheck and Glynn.  Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Boston), House chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health and a panelist in Wednesday’s forum, has introduced legislation to ensure that all public school children receive adequate physical activity.  House bill 1157, ‘An Act to Promote Healthy People and a Health Economy’ would require physical education in all schools, or that students have at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity. It would also allow healthy food businesses, such as grocery stores and farmers’ markets to qualify for state investment tax credit.  Rep. Gloria Fox (D-Boston) has filed legislation to mandate high-quality physical education classes in school and Senator James Eldridge (D-Acton) has sponsored a bill to require certain zoning regulations for healthy community design.  As Sacheck noted in her discussion, “The environment we live in can either help make us physically fit, or act as a deterrent to physical activity.”  Are the parks and playgrounds in a community safe and user friendly?  The answers, according to Sacheck, may determine whether a community encourages its children to be active and physically fit.

In 2009, Commissioner John Auerbach and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health launched Mass in Motion, a program to promote obesity prevention and wellness with a focus on physical activity and healthy eating.  Since that time, the program has provided seed money to: coordinate BMI testing of public schools students in grades 1, 4, 7 and 10; develop Mass in Motion programs in 33 communities; develop worksite wellness programs to encourage healthy behaviors and reduce health care costs; create a Mass in Motion website to raise awareness; and develop a Children at Play initiative and 2000-calorie campaign funded by federal grants.

Despite these efforts, the reality is that budget cuts in this sluggish economy will continue to threaten the sustainability of these public health initiatives. Phil Edmundson, president and CEO of William Gallagher Associates and founder of Healthy People/Healthy Economy Coalition Leadership Group, suggested that the state should take advantage of an unique opportunity to help finance health and wellness programs through the proposed Prevention Trust (HB1498) “Wellness promotion and obesity prevention can be fostered under the proposed Prevention Trust but the trust needs a secure source of funding,” Edmundson said.   “Ending the sales tax exemption on soda and dedicating that revenue to the Prevention Trust would benefit the state in three ways:  reduced soda consumption, increased wellness, and reduced healthcare costs for business and government payers alike.”

According to Sacheck, solutions based on key strategies must continue to be promoted and implemented – through individuals, schools, communities, and the state – with initiatives, programs and policies.   “We need to fund programs in public health and education that address this issue.  We need to advocate for changes in physical activity standards where being physically active is the natural default to curtail the obesity epidemic,” she added.

For more information about ‘Overweight and Obesity in Massachusetts: A Focus on Physical Activity Costs, Consequences and Opportunities for Change,’ visit