Obesity is still on the rise among California students, but after years of prevention measures in schools, the rate is slowing, new research shows.
More than 35 percent of students were overweight or obese in 2008, up from one-third in 2003. That's an average annual increase of 0.33 percent, compared with 0.8 to 1.7 percent each year in decades prior.
The findings, released last week, are based on the results of state-mandated physical fitness testing of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students. Researchers at UC Davis, with funding from the California Department of Education, examined test results of 6.3 million students over six years.
The tests showed overall improvements in aerobic capacity, upper body strength and flexibility and declines in healthy body composition, abdominal strength and trunk extensor strength. The percentage of students achieving healthy fitness in all categories jumped from about 29 percent in 2003 to nearly 35 percent in 2008.
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"This is a first step. It's a big first step because for the first time, we've at least been able to block the progression or increase in obesity," said Dr. William Bommer, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at UC Davis and senior author of the study. "Obesity, it's probably one of the hardest things we have in adults and even in kids to try to reverse."
Of the three grades tested in physical fitness, researchers found the youngest students to be of greatest concern. Heavier each year, incoming fifth-graders are driving the overall increase in student obesity, Bommer said. After entering fifth grade, obesity leveled off, suggesting that students might need new, earlier interventions.
Bommer was part of a state task force in 2004 that recommended physical activity and healthy food and drink standards in California schools. For every 10 school days, the state now requires at least 200 minutes of physical activity for students in first through sixth grades and 400 minutes for students in grades 7 through 12. And high-fat, sugary foods and beverages are banned from schools.
But because physical fitness is not tested before fifth grade, "we don't know how well we did in those K-5 grades," Bommer said. "To be honest, I can't tell you whether the problem is before kindergarten, K-5 or both of those where we still have the increase in obesity."
Bommer said physical fitness testing at earlier ages could help identify the onset of obesity. But statewide fitness testing is at risk.
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed eliminating the state-mandated program – an annual appropriation of nearly $3.5 million. In its budget analysis, the Legislative Analyst's Office said, "These tests do not supplement state physical education requirements in any substantive way nor are the test results used to improve physical education practices."
Audits, studies and surveys have found that many students do not receive the required amounts of physical activity. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and public health advocates say the tests are an important diagnostic component of physical education.
"The superintendent is very much (for) educating the whole student, and that includes the body as well as the mind," said Linda Hooper, an education research and evaluation consultant for the Department of Education. Torlakson recently launched an initiative to promote physical activity and healthy eating in schools and communities.
Eliminating funding for physical fitness tests would hurt those efforts, Hooper said, adding that without the state mandate, a majority of districts would not perform the tests.
Physical fitness testing results are perhaps the department's most-requested data, Hooper said. The data – among the most comprehensive of its kind in the country – are valuable tools for health and education officials, researchers and advocates.
The California Center for Public Health Advocacy last year used physical fitness testing data to identify significant disparities [PDF] in the rates of overweight and obese students throughout the state. In 31 of the state's 58 counties, the prevalence of overweight and obese students has increased even as the statewide average has declined.
"It gives the schools tools to be able to assess where they might need to beef up their physical education or where students have specific needs. … It gives a window into policy interventions as well," said S. Alecia Sanchez, policy director for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
Simply requiring physical activity in school is not enough, Bommer said.
"If we don't test, we really can't tell whether we're having an effect or not," he said. "If you can't have this testing, we might just assume, gee, obesity has gone away, and it isn't a problem. But this tells us there's still an ongoing problem."