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Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Hawaii kids’
obesity rate twice
of mainland

The ratio of overweight kids
in the islands is twice that of the
mainland, research reveals

By Helen Altonn

A five-year study to determine if Hawaii's children grow and develop normally has revealed a frightening fact: More than 20 percent of them are overweight. That's double the national rate.

Childhood obesity also has increased in the United States and in other countries -- even in Japan, where obesity is relatively rare, according to CENSIS, a national statistics agency.

The University of Hawaii Kinesiology and Leisure Science Department in the College of Education and the Brigham Young University Exercise and Sport Science Department conducted the local study.

They measured about 1,400 students, ages 6 to 17, in an unidentified community.

The findings are "really kind of scary," said Kwok-Wai Ho, retired chair of Kinesiology and Leisure Science and co-principal investigator in the study with a department colleague, associate professor Dennis Chai.

"We found, essentially, our children are growing quite normal compared to national data, except one thing was really striking," Ho said. "Their body weight was really heavy....

"Some are too fat. They don't even want to come in to do a measurement (at the upper age level)."

More than 65 percent of the participants were measured for at least three of the five years, Ho said.

The researchers used a body mass index calculation which considers weight and height to determine if a person is underweight, overweight or in the normal range.

They followed conservative criteria used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to measure if children are overweight, and the obesity levels were double what they are on the mainland, Ho said.

Nationally, 11.4 percent of boys and girls 6 to 11 years old are classified as overweight. Hawaii's figure is 22.2 percent, Ho said.

The Hawaii study found that 23.8 percent of children 12 to 17 years old were overweight, compared with 10.5 percent of children ages 12 to 19 nationally.

Although children in only one community were measured, Ho said the researchers have been in all parts of the state and, without doing a statistical analysis, "even subjectively, we knew our kids were fat." Concerned about the health implications, the researchers sought and received a three-year grant from an equally concerned Hawaii Medical Service Association Foundation to look for solutions.

They proposed a physical activity program, "hopefully to fit the local situation and help children increase their level of physical activity and reduce obesity," Ho said.

Starting in August, he said, a one-year pilot program of physical activity and nutritional changes will begin in five schools in the Kahuku area. One class per grade will participate in each school, five days a week. (The study was not done in Kahuku, Ho said.)

To get more ideas and expert opinions, a conference is being held today at the East-West Center on "Childhood Obesity in Hawaii: Identification Determinants and Suggested Interventions."

Sponsors of the event, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., include the HMSA Foundation, Healthy Hawaii Initiative, Department of Health; the UH Kinesiology & Leisure Science Department; the state Department of Education; Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children; and Kaho'omiki: Hawaii's Council on Physical Activity.

Ho said the obesity specialists are invited to brainstorm with key people in the community tomorrow morning.

"The timing is right," Ho said. "Not only in Hawaii but the whole nation, obesity is one of the biggest medical problems ... so we are right on target."

He said the pilot program in Kahuku "will not only be running around, but include an educational component with motor learning, sportsmanship, knowledge enhancement and physical fitness."

At the end of the year, kids who participate in the program will be compared with those who don't to determine the impact, Ho said.

If the program is effective, he said a recommendation will be made to expand it across the state.

"Physical activity is not the only way we can solve the problem," he added.

"There are many other factors in terms of childhood obesity. That's why we want experts from the mainland to tell us their experience."

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