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To Combat Obesity, Adolescents Lead by Example

  • Faiza Elmasry

Research by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates one in three American children is overweight or obese and may well be part of the first generation that doesn’t outlive its parents.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is out to change that scenario. Founded a decade ago by the American Heart Association and Clinton Foundation, the Alliance has been coming up with creative ways to fight obesity. One approach is to allow young people to be part of the solution.

But Jodi Evans in particular has always been active. The 12-year-old student from Maryland loves to exercise and play sports and dance, which she calls just as athletic as swimming or football.

“Not everyone thinks it’s a sport just because it’s not in the Olympics," she says. "It’s something that keeps your heart going; it’s something that requires a lot of energy, something that requires eating healthy to have energy. And that’s how it benefits your health."

Jodi's healthy lifestyle and involvement in sports were among the factors behind her selection to serve on the Alliance's Youth Advisory Board, where she was one of the youngest members when she was recruited three years ago, at age 9.

Active youth board

Youth Advisory Board members, a group of 8- to 17-year-olds from across the country, raise address obesity in their own communities.

“They are talking to their school board about changing school food in the cafeterias, planning school gardens or talking to their state legislature about new policies they can pass," says Alliance spokeswoman Megan McIntire.

More importantly, members discuss healthier eating choices with their peers. Jodi, for example, created a display at her local library to showcase nutritional food and a healthy lifestyle. Peer-to-peer talk on such issues, McIntire says, is crucial in order to change the current alarming obesity statistics.

"It’s an epidemic," she said. "We’re seeing some signs of the trends flattening, but there is still extremely high prevalence of obesity in specific populations, so African American and Hispanics are just disproportionally impacted by obesity issues.”

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s goal is to empower kids to creative healthier environments for themselves, and much of the focus is on schools.

“We’re in 29,000 schools across the country where we’re really changing the culture of what happens in schools," McIntire explained. "Everything from [whether] they are having physical activities throughout the day, access to recess and physical education to what’s served in the vending machines."

Gentle approach to tough issue

According to June Evans, Jodi’s mother, her daughter's role on the Youth Advisory Board also helped Jodi develop important leadership skills.

“If she sees friends are struggling in one area where they are not eating healthy or they’re complaining about their body, complaining about their weight, she would step in and she would do it in a positive, quiet way," she said.

That gentle, friendly approach helps Jodi get her message across.

“She told me your body is your temple and you take care of your temple by eating right, exercise properly, not overdoing it,” says Melissa Jackson, one of Jodi’s friends.

Though her term on the board ends this year, Jodi says she will always stay active and continue to spread the message among her friends in school, in her neighborhood and everywhere.