Friday, May 18, 2001

A Weighty Matter

By Jodi Bodner DuBow
Jewish Week - May 18, 2001

he People of the Book may need to stop turning pages and turn on to a new diet and exercise regimen instead. Mirroring the rising trend in overweight children and adolescents that is, some in the medical world say, reaching epidemic proportions, more and more Orthodox kids are being diagnosed with obesity and its subsequent diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even osteoporosis. 
The epidemic of polio will be dwarfed by the epidemic of obesity, predicts Dr. Henry Anhalt, director of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and medical director of the Kids Weight Down Program at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn. It is estimated that 90 percent of the population will be overweight by the year 2030. 
The problems cited by the rest of the world inactivity due to hours spent sitting watching TV, playing Nintendo or on the computer are compounded in the Orthodox world by lengthier school days and an emphasis placed on educational advancement, leaving little or no time for active play during the school day or after hours. 
Its not so much that this group of children is overweight, said Dr. Ilene Coopersmith, a pediatrician in Brooklyn whos been in practice for 30 years, its that theyre not fit. Theyre soft and pasty. Even their posture is inadequate. Being fit depends on the amount of tissue thats muscle, which they dont have much of. 
The declining activity level is definitely the biggest part of the problem here, said Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietician and certified dietician nutritionist, with offices on Long Island and in Manhattan and a long list of young clients. In the Orthodox world, physical education is put on a back burner kids come home late, eat dinner and do their homework and theres no time for anything else. Some go to school on Sunday too so unless its a nice walk to temple, they get no activity all week long. 
To be sure, said Dr. Michael Frogel, chief of general pediatrics at Schneiders Childrens Hospital, anorexia and bulimia which get so much attention are terrible, but the havoc they wreak are nothing compared to the losses each year due to weight. 
According to the Centers for Disease Control, physical inactivity and poor diet together account for an estimated 300,000 deaths each year in children. The National Health Examination Surveys show that the prevalence of childhood obesity nationally is estimated to be 25 to 30 percent. Further, over the past three decades that number has increased by 54 percent in children ages 6-11and by 39 percent in adolescents 12-17. 
Standards of obesity are measured by body weight index as compared to age and sex match norms. 
It was this grim news that woke up the activist in Evelyn Weinberger. Always interested in health and nutrition, this Brooklyn resident, whose children attend yeshiva, was having dinner with Coopersmith one Friday night, and she made a statement that blew me away, said Weinberger. She said that she believes we will see an increased incidence of mortality in the Orthodox population because of their inactive lifestyle. Now I know that healthy children produce better, so we need to see to their health. 
So Weinberger, together with Frogel, founded the Yeshiva Health Task Force (YHTF), a multidisciplinary group of physicians, rabbis, educators, therapists and parents, formed to help schools promote good health through curriculum development, Health Fairs and resource materials. 
Its the halachic thing to do, said Frogel. The Torah clearly states that we must diligently protect our physical and mental health. People must recognize their obligation to care for their health. 
We need to start educating our kids at a young age and get them to think from early on about the good way to live. And its not just about weight its about being healthy and safe. 
Coopersmith agrees. They key is in the percent of muscle tissue. Ashkenazic Jews are predisposed to being fatter. You cant defy your own body, but you can work at making it work more efficiently and at being physically fit. 
She also stressed that the emphasis should not be on obesity but on fitness. We dont want kids to become anorexic but to concentrate on looking good and fit. And its been proven that exercise is an anti-depressant and gives adolescents good strong ego formation. 
Said Anhalt: Its all about the energy expenditure and the energy intake and the balance between what we take in and what we put out. We need to get back down to basics and take care of our physical bodies. 
To that end, there needs to be cooperation between the home and the school. Parents set an example, said Taub-Dix. If theyre not physically active, their kids will see that. And they do the shopping. They need to watch what kind of foods theyre bringing into the home. 
And schools need to start working fitness and health education into their daily schedules. Some area yeshivot have already worked with the YHTF and hosted weeklong health fairs. Time must also be made for physical activity, even 15 minutes of Jumping Jacks every morning will make a difference, said Anhalt. Curriculum also needs adjustment and, says Frogel, can be worked into any subject without missing a beat. On Rosh HaShanah when we teach about new fruits, a discussion on fruits and vegetables and a well-rounded diet can be launched. Matzah on Passover can veer into carbohydrates and grains. It can be woven into the fabric of the curriculum without any loss of time. 
Life begins with health, he says, and parents and schools need to work in conjunction.

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