This is the final installment of this series. During the summer, we will be collecting a list of effective community healthy-living efforts. If you think your community is doing something noteworthy to prevent diabetes/obesity, tell us about it. Email kate_l...@hotmail.com.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On a sunny April afternoon, two fifth-grade West Side boys, Michael Smith and Dada Mitchell, walked to Charleston's Celebration Station playground to hustle a basketball game.
They found two grown-ups shooting hoops. They talked their way into the game.
During a break, all four answered this question: What does exercise do for you?
"I'm an accountant, so I sit all day," one man said. "If I don't exercise, I gain weight."
Flashing a toothy grin, 11-year-old Michael threw up his hand. "Exercise makes your blood pump harder through your heart!" he blurted. "It makes your heart stronger."
"It keeps you from getting heart attacks and diabetes," his buddy Dada chimed in. They clearly knew this stuff and enjoyed telling it.
Startled, the adults stared at them. "Helps you lose weight and makes your bones stronger!" Michael continued, passing the basketball from hand to hand. "Makes you live longer!"
How do they know all that? Dada shrugged. "School," he said, grabbing the ball from Michael and taking a shot at the basket.
"School and my grandma," Michael echoed. "They tell us, 'Get out and do stuff, get your blood moving.' That's what we're doing, getting our blood moving."
"Somebody's doing a good job at their school," one of the men muttered.
Reasons to hope
West Virginia still tops Gallup Healthways' "Worst Health" list. Yes, the state is still at or near the top of every ranking of every awful obesity-related disease: diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, hypertension, you name it. Yes, the adult obesity rate rose last year to 33.5 percent.
But there are reasons to hope. The child obesity rate appears to be dropping.
Something is happening with the kids.
At Celebration Station, next to Michael and Dada's hoops game, Lois and Marvin Bell were playing ball with 2-year-old Marvin Jr. "We're here because my 5-year-old badgers me every day to let her go outside and play," Lois Bell said. "She's overweight, and they told her at school that if she goes out to play an hour every day, it will help."
So the whole family went to the playground. It's catching.
A year ago, the Sunday Gazette-Mail reported that one in four fifth-graders had high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol. Almost 29 percent were obese. Those were West Virginia University numbers from actual screenings in the schools.
"Those kids are headed straight for diabetes and heart disease," Dr. Bill Neal said at the time. Neal directs the CARDIAC program that screens the kids.
Legislative reports were warning that, if obesity keeps growing at 2008 rates, the cost to state taxpayers of treating those diseases will double by 2030.
There's reason to hope that won't happen. In 2012, the percentage of fifth-graders with high blood pressure dropped from one in four to one in five, WVU's numbers show. So did the percentage of fifth-graders with abnormal cholesterol.
The fifth-grade obesity rate edged down a point. The kindergarten rate dropped from 18 percent to 15 percent. Each one-point drop represents thousands of children.
Neal credits the school system's campaign to improve school meal nutrition and get children more active. "We may be at a tipping point for child obesity," said Dr. Ron Stollings, a physician and chairman of the West Virginia Senate's Health and Human Resources Committee.
"It's no time to let up," said Don Perdue, chairman of the House health committee. "The question is, will the numbers keep going down? We're still above national average."
Last week, Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, medical director of Children's Medicine Center at Charleston's Women and Children's Hospital, announced that the obesity rate at her center had dropped.
"Five years ago, we found that 44 percent of our patients between the ages of 2 and 14 were obese or overweight," she said. This year, they repeated the study. "The rate dropped to 36 percent," almost 20 percent. "That's truly significant, really encouraging."