Obesity rates fall in Philadelphia

Children exercise at Issac Sheppard school in north Philadelphia Children at the Philadelphia school carry out their 15-minute exercise routine

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What is the greatest single threat to Americans' safety and well-being in the coming decade? Al-Qaeda? Climate change? The towering debt and deficit?

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The answer is everywhere you go in America, sold over-the-counter and consumed in astonishing scale and quantity.

Americans are drowning in unhealthy food and tottering under the obesity that that food - and lack of exercise - creates.

And, staggering alongside them is a healthcare system paying out of tens of billions of dollars a year to deal with obesity-related illness - heart disease, strokes and Type 2 diabetes.

America is the fattest industrialised nation on earth - the UK is very close behind. And where it leads, the developed - and now the developing - world has followed.

Getting moving

The good news? The tide of obesity can be turned. The curiosity? For a country that believes in light-touch government, America seems to have taken pretty serious official intervention to start to turn things around.

Start Quote

Jim Otto

We tried a walking club, but we got shot at”

End Quote Jim Otto Head teacher

Litter is scattered over the streets around Issac Sheppard school in north Philadelphia. The terraced housing nearby is run down. Here and there windows are boarded up.

The place feels deeply uncared for. Groups of young people gather on street corners to no apparent purpose.

Issac Sheppard's head teacher, Jim Otto, half-jokes that officials from the school district do not come to the school much, so concerned are they for their physical safety and that of their cars.

Inside one of the classrooms of the grey 19th Century stone school building, there is a different kind of lesson going on.

Led by a video projected on to a whiteboard nine children, a mix of Latinos and African-Americans, walk or jump on the spot, swing their arms, stretch and reach in an exercise class that lasts around 15 minutes.

"We tried a walking club," says Mr Otto, smiling, "but we got shot at."

Obesity 'a norm'

Children at the school do the exercise class at least once a day, some of them twice. It is a voluntary initiative enthusiastically embraced by the school.

"Our children want to run," Mr Otto says. "They want to play, they want to compete. But it's just not practical, it's not possible, it's not safe for them to do that."

"If we don't give them the opportunity to do that here then that opportunity is going to slide by."

Children play at Issac Sheppard School, Philadelphia

But maybe the exercise lessons will go beyond the classroom: "Our hope really is that our kids are going to want to say to their parents, you know, 'we could play this game,' or 'we could go to the park,' or 'we could walk,'" he adds.

What is happening at Issac Sheppard is part of a Philadelphia-wide movement led by the city government: Get Philly Healthy.

In 2010, a city health department report noted gloomily that obesity had become "a norm and a public health crisis" in the city, with 64% of adults and 57% of children aged 6-11 overweight or obese.

In north Philadelphia, 70% of children were overweight or obese.

Get Philly Healthy has disconnected deep fat fryers in every Philadelphia school, removed sugary-snack vending machines, built bike lanes, encouraged exercise in schools and businesses and sponsored fresh-produce fridges and fresh-fruit racks in 650 corner stores around the poorest parts of the city.

And Philadelphia's obesity rate is falling - not just levelling out, but falling - down 5% from 2006 to 2010, with the greatest declines amongst African-American boys and Hispanic girls.

'Very long war'

The city's health commissioner, Dr Donald Schwartz, is careful not to take the credit. It is too early, he says, to make a link between the city's efforts and the drop in the obesity rate.

Philadelphia corner shop Corner shops have been given money, and sometimes fridges, to stock healthy food

"We're convinced that we really are seeing a reduction in childhood obesity in the city," he says, "and we have a hint, although no confirmation yet, of the first turn in adult obesity in Philadelphia."

There are limits to how far the city can go. A proposed tax on sugary drinks - identified by the city's health department as one of the key drivers of obesity - was defeated.

There are structural barriers to get around as well. Dr Schwarz says that when the city of Baltimore tried to get fresh fruit into its corner shops it failed because the single distributor that served the shops refused.

And, according to Dr Schwarz, national policies produce perverse and deeply harmful incentives.

Subsidies for the corn that goes into the sugar substitute, high fructose corn syrup, have seen the inflation-adjusted price of sugary snacks fall, whilst that of fruit has risen.

Food - harvesting, processing and distributing - is a huge and profitable business, and not without lobbying resources.

By opening many different fronts in the fight against obesity, the city may have begun to turn things around. But Dr Schwarz sounds a note of caution.

"This is not a battle," he says, "This is a very long war."

Jonny Dymond Article written by Jonny Dymond Jonny Dymond Washington correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Just remember: eat right, exercise, die anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    88. FatPeace

    In his book "Roots" Alex Haley mentioned that his ancestors village had a period where food was very scarce sort of a yearly famine. His people had to be able to recover weight very fast and store enough for the next year. That turns into bad genes if you have enough food all year round.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Some children are given adult portions at every meal and told to clean their plates or no desert so they carry that concept into adult hood. Worse the English Nanny telling parents to make their children eat what they have cooked instead of offering a choice. My mom never overstuffed us & if I did not like what she made until I could cook I could have cheerios and milk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Like Plato's Socartes warned us, the disease of the soul (or mind) is much more severe than physical sickness.

    Obesity is unpleasant, yes. But the wider dumbed-down culture of celebrity worhsip, soundbite politics and trashy TV is much more serious. How can we become a nation of sensible eaters and exercisers when swimming in a sea of social & political moronity?

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Well done to the Isaac Shepherd school! It's a massive cultural problem which we've also inherited here. In the 60's, I went to school with American girls whose lunchboxes were stuffed with food: a symbol of affluence. Then there's the cars, coupled with neighbourhoods where people don't feel safe enough to walk. Parents' example comes 1st though, along with no corn syrup: it's deadly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    @Fat Peace 146 - I knew the sports issue would come up, and it's a grey area for me! The overweight will have the elderly care as well, and probably need more of it! It's an interesting discussion, I don't think there is necessarily a right answer, but it's nice to debate like adults on HYS for a change, instead of political or personal point-scoring!

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    The Ministry of Culture, to be known as MiniCult, has found its Minister.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    I am less worried by overweight bodies in the US than by the intellectual obesity of lowest common denominator cultural values expressed through trashy TV & movies, pseudo-music, and cheap demogaguery in politics.

    It's a dumbed-down culture and poor eating habits are only one aspect of a culture of crude public discourse. Let's heal the culture first, then the body.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    144. bhscolleen

    You tool me seriously? Also, I don't recall mentioning drugs. Stay on topic please.

    Immediately ignoring my own request, I just want to add that I believe that we landed on the moon, evolution is real, the government didn't stage 9-11, crystals don't cure cancer, and water doesn't have a memory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    143.Sarah "burden on welfare services"
    Ah, the NHS costs argument. Lots of people knowingly do things that ultimately cost the NHS. No-one is demonising Sunday leaguers (quite the opposite) despite the huge cost of treating sports injuries. And elderly care dwarfs all else. Most smokers, drinkers, fat folk contribute to the NHS through tax; is it our fault Govts wasted it on PFI and office art?

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Over consumption is symptomatic of an unfulfilling life. The problem is is that we are constantly being told that consumption leads to fulfillment - of course it doesn't. Having worked with lots of 'cuddly' americans, there is also a battle to be won against a certain pride in bad and unhealthy consumption. Naturally as a species we tend to overeat, with low self esteem we go crazy on it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Jamsie, blood pressure rates are merely arbitrary (Harrison's Principles of Medicine), but the drugs used to "treat" "hypertension" carry dangers themselves. You can find that for yourself by going to the medical library.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    @Fat Peace 142 - if exercising that right means that you place a greater burden on welfare services, is that justified? Would you say the same for smokers and alcoholics? Is it even acceptable for an adult who understands what they are doing, deliberately to follow a course of action that makes him a burden to others? This is very different from an overweight person who wants to be slim.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    127.LucyJ "isn't that their right?"
    Be careful, I recently got the bottom rated comment (-122) for daring to argue that the right to be fat is a fundamental one(http://tinyurl.com/ctdevz8). 'Science' has oft been misused to justify popular prejudice. For me the biggest victory of gay activism was not in proving that sexuality isn't a 'choice' but separating the issue entirely from civil rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    @Fat Peace 116 - Please don't misquote me (109) - I am NOT in favour in bringing back rationing. However, I do think that our attitudes towards food changed as a result of the war, and we are now seeing 2nd and 3rd generations of people living on very cheaply, mass produced food, with questionable nutritional value. For the record, I am overweight, but trying to look at this objectively!

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    130.Jamsie "A peer reviewed scientific journal, though, it was not"

    No, but it's a prime example of how the media have deliberately inflated the scale of the issue using militaristic, apocalyptic language.

    Here's an good article, that's not from a journal called 'Obesity' (which lets face it has little to gain from questioning accepted wisdom) but the IJE: http://tinyurl.com/6ehdv2l

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Hey Colleen, cooking is a great way to relax and lower your blood pressure, and it means you don't have to swallow things you don't like :-)

    I was actually suggesting that peer reviewed scientific journals were a more useful information source than a partisan blog or Google. Have you ever had a paper peer reviewed? I challenge you to find a more robust process anywhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Jamsie, I don't like cooking, but I'll tell you what: since you swallow anything told to you by the medical industry, I'll cook for you-then you'll be sorry. As for such unthinking remarks, I'll take you to the medical library and make you do research.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    136. bhscolleen


  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    So who's arguing not to be smart? Or doctors are above scrutiny? Or to help humanity?


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