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Published on November 20, 2014

Greater St. Cloud's Overweight and Obesity Rates Drop by 28 Percent Among Pre-teens

Preliminary Clinic Data Shows Healthier Options in Schools, Community Are Supporting Better Health

St. Cloud, Minn. – The rate of 12-year-old boys who are overweight or obese dropped by 28 percent over six years in the Greater St. Cloud region according to clinic data released by CentraCare Health.

In 2014, 29 percent of 12-year-old boys in the region were overweight or obese, compared with 40 percent overweight or obese in 2008. The Greater St. Cloud region’s downward trend runs counter to other Central Minnesota communities served by CentraCare, where overweight and obesity rates of 12-year-old boys increased from 34 percent in 2008 to 38 percent in 2014.

Health leaders credit the drop in rates of children with unhealthy weights to BLEND – Better Living: Exercise and Nutrition Daily. The community initiative encourages physical activity and healthy eating as part of children’s daily lives by working with schools, grocers, city leaders and others to change the settings and activities that influence health. CentraCare Health has convened and staffed the work since its inception.

“Today’s 12-year-olds entered school in 2007 and 2008, just as BLEND was beginning its work in elementary schools. This is the first cohort to experience healthy options, activities and environments for their entire school career, so to see that obesity rates are not increasing as the children age and are actually on the decline is especially encouraging,” said David Tilstra, MD, President of CentraCare Clinic and member of the BLEND board of directors.

Nationwide, one third of adolescents are overweight or obese. Obesity among children ages 2 to 5 is on the decline, but rates have held constant for youth ages 6 to 19 between 2003 and 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

St. Cloud’s growth in the proportion of children overweight or obese also slowed markedly between 2008 and 2014. When the BLEND initiative began, the rate of children overweight or obese grew by 48 percent during the elementary school years (between ages 5 and 12). Today, the proportion of St. Cloud boys who are overweight or obese only increased by 23 percent during the elementary school years (between ages 5 and 12). The findings point toward a sustainable reversal in the region’s previously-climbing childhood obesity rates, which continue to increase nationwide.

“Making healthy choices easier is about setting up our next generation to start and keep good habits when it comes to nutritious foods, active lifestyles and an appreciation for health,” added Mark Larkin, Vice President of Philanthropy for CentraCare Health and executive director of CentraCare Health Foundation, which organized and staffed the BLEND work. “Our clinical data is showing that the message of health is really resonating with the next generation, which is especially exciting.”

BLEND has worked to change the opportunities for health available in children’s daily lives since 2006. The initiative aimed to drop childhood obesity rates by 10 percent by 2016, a goal that has been reached two years early.

Efforts that contributed to a decline in overweight and obesity rates have included:

  • Safe Routes To School. Students at five elementary and middle schools in Sartell, Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud are now able to safely walk or bike to school each day because of new sidewalks, bike lanes, safe-speed signage and crossing guard stations connecting neighborhoods and schools. One year after crossing guards and signage were placed at Pleasant View Elementary in Sauk Rapids, the school saw a 23 percent increase in children walking and biking to school. Likewise, the Sartell Middle School saw a 40 percent bump in students walking and biking over the same period. Earlier this month, the Sartell City Council adopted the Safe Routes to School plan as part of its transportation planning for future years.
  • NuVal In Coborn’s Grocery And Sartell Middle Schools. The NuVal scoring system assigns many food items with a single nutrition score between 1 and 100 (higher numbers are more nutritious). Sales receipts show that parents “trade up” for healthier options when given easy-to-use information like the NuVal scores. For example, sales of unhealthy yogurts dropped by 19 percent in the first year of NuVal’s St. Cloud area implementation, while healthy yogurt sales increased by 4 percent.
  • Healthy Holidays & Fit Fundraisers. Through events like the Halloween Candy Buy-Back program and annual Walk-A-Thons, students are having fun and supporting their schools with healthy walks, runs and enticing rewards. For example, Walk-A-Thons replace fundraisers that sell candy and baked goods with a day of activity at schools, trading excess calories for physical activity. Since 2008, more than 12,000 students at 22 schools have walked or participated in events to support their school and activities.
  • Complete Streets In St. Cloud. Since 2011, all streets built or rebuilt in St. Cloud must consider pedestrian-friendly features like sidewalks and bike lanes. The resolution states that the City will seek to enhance the safety, access, convenience and comfort of users of all ages and abilities, including walking pedestrians, people requiring mobility aids, bicyclists and transit users.

“Making changes like Safe Routes to School or events like Walk-A-Thons create immediate changes. We know we’re seeing more kids walk and bike, for example,” noted Jodi Gertken, who has led the BLEND project for CentraCare Health since its inception. “But the real payoff of these changes is in the multiplier effect we see where good habits beget good habits. That’s why changing policies can be a significant and sustainable path toward better health. It’s exciting to see that multiplier effect bear out in the health of St. Cloud area children.”

CentraCare Health will be expanding its work to increase healthy options in communities over the coming years, building on the success and lessons from BLEND and Crave the Change, a companion effort that promotes public health policies that reduce tobacco use and eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke.

“As physicians, we see the benefits of healthy eating and tobacco-free and active lifestyles – and we see the effects when healthy lifestyles are hard to achieve. We know we can’t prescribe our way to better health for everyone. Initiatives like BLEND show that by lending our medical perspective to the community, we can make it easier for everyone to live healthier lives and help our patients in ways the clinic alone can’t reach,” added Dr. Janet Handrigan, Medical Director for CentraCare Health’s expanded wellness work.

“I’m proud to be part of a health care team that continues to put a focus on supporting health beyond our clinic walls,” noted Dr. Handrigan.

The data analyzed reflects body mass index (BMI) recorded by CentraCare Health clinicians from Jan. 1, 2008 to Sept. 30, 2014. Findings are significant (p = 0.034), and have been verified by statisticians from St. Cloud State University. Overweight and obesity rates among 10 year old girls also declined during the same period, but the declines did not hold in the pre-teen years. Additional research is needed to understand the gender differences of results.

CentraCare Health is Central Minnesota’s leading healthcare provider, treating a majority of people in St. Cloud and the surrounding 12 counties. Given CentraCare’s significant community presence, the healthcare provider’s electronic health records are used as a real-time proxy for the region’s population.

Visit our wellness page for more information about BLEND, Crave the Change and other CentraCare efforts to support healthy living.

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