September 8, 2016: As school year begins, “keep kids in motion”

September 8, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the summer months wind down and school hours again take up much of the day for our community’s school-age children, one increasingly difficult task facing parents is to promote healthy living by our kids.  Healthy living involves not simply healthy eating, according to Be Well Belmont, but involves efforts to “keep kids in motion.”

Both the message and the messenger deserve public attention.

Be Well Belmont is a project of the Belmont Food Collaborative.  The effort, according to Suzanne Johannet, an M.D. and the BFC board chair, is based on the observation that unhealthy living imposes costs, both governmental and societal.  Be Well Belmont is pursuing several major “themes,” Johannet says, including both obesity prevention and mental health.  Youth services, Johannet says, is an important aspect of both of these themes.

Be Well Belmont is part of a larger network of community-based health initiatives.  It joins sister efforts such as Live Well Watertown and Shape-up Somerville.  In most states, Johannet observes, the activities of these efforts would be undertaken by the county public health department.  However, she says, Massachusetts has never had strong county governments and county health departments are non-existent.

Accordingly, Johannet says, local grassroots efforts are supported through regional networks called Community Health Network Areas. Belmont is part of CHNA (pronounced, Chuh-NAW) 17, which also includes Somerville, Cambridge, Watertown, Arlington and Waltham.  Funding is provided to the CHNA when regulatory actions such as hospital consolidations are approved by state regulators.

Be Well Belmont began in late 2015 by pulling together more than 70 community leaders, ranging from the school superintendent, to the library director, to the police chief and a host of community volunteers, business people and clergy, not as policymakers but rather as idea generators and community role models.  The evening’s conversation was charged with identifying “gaps in community wellness activities.”

One resulting objective of the Be Well Belmont organization was to “keep kids in motion.”  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that young people aged 6 – 17 participate in 60 minutes of physical activity daily.  Such activity, HHS says, not only helps build healthier bodies for our kids, but also helps improve academic performance, including grades, attentiveness in the classroom and ability to concentrate on tasks.

Paying particular attention to keeping kids in motion is important both by gender and by age.  Engaging in physical activity declines as young people grow older, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.  The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance study noted that by high school, only 29% percent of high school students had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on each of the seven days before the survey. Young females were half as likely as young males to have engaged in such activity (17.7% vs. 36.6%).

The Be Well Belmont efforts are part of a growing campaign to keep kids physically active outside of the classroom in the face of video games, television, and other screen time attractions.  For example, physical activity might beneficially be viewed as part of each child’s daily regime as much as daily homework is.

As the summer days of bicycles and camps turn into days of classrooms and nights of homework, it is important to keep kids in motion.  From walking to school to hoola hoops to bikes; from backyards to houses of worship; from friends to family to neighbors, renewing our community’s commitment at the beginning of this school year to help our kids stay healthy by helping them to stay physically active is one promise we should make and keep.

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