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Joining forces to fight obesity

Doctors praise Chicago effort

CHICAGO -- Yoga and dance workshops for children and parents at a museum. Free bike locks to encourage students to cycle to school. A food bank that offers fitness workouts along with hot meals for children.

These are among the projects encouraged by a two-year-old Chicago consortium tackling childhood obesity.

"The obesity epidemic is one of the defining public health challenges of the 21st century," said Dr. Matthew Longjohn, head of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. He said he believes the problem demands unprecedented collaboration across all sectors of society, and that's what has happened through the consortium.

The group was praised by the American Medical Association as it begins a two-day obesity summit in Chicago today.

Housed at Children's Memorial Hospital, the consortium funds a variety of obesity-fighting projects and research throughout the city. It's also an information-sharing network that has amassed nearly 700 partners citywide -- doctors, schools, museums, and industry and charity groups that reach tens of thousands of children.

Under the consortium's influence, these groups have added an obesity-fighting focus to their programs.

The AMA, which is working on an obesity agenda, is taking a close look at the Chicago group's efforts. The medical organization might recommend that doctors get involved in community efforts like the consortium, said Dr. Arthur Elster, the AMA's director of medicine and public health.

"There are relatively few models as extensive as this one," Elster said

Fighting obesity "has to be much deeper than just a doctor and a patient," said Dr. John Nelson, the AMA's president, citing dire projections: 400,000 Americans will die this year from obesity-related causes, and within a few years, obesity will replace tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death.

"We've got to have a cultural change," Nelson said. "We've got a real uphill battle."

One of the consortium's first projects was to define the problem locally in a study last year showing that 23 percent of kindergartners in Chicago public schools are obese -- more than double the national average of 10.4 percent for similarly aged youngsters.

Another group's survey found obesity rates as high as 53 percent among Chicago children ages 2 to 12 in some black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

"The numbers are startling, and it's growing worse every year," said Rob Sadowsky of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation who serves on the consortium's executive committee.

The consortium is evaluating whether obesity can be reduced through partners' programs, including the bike federation's free lock "libraries" at public schools and the bike group's efforts to encourage parents in unsafe neighborhoods to walk with groups of children to school instead of driving or taking the bus.

It also influenced the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which serves hot meals to low-income children, to add fitness activities.

Another partner, Chicago's Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, enlisted the consortium to help with a fitness festival earlier this year that drew more than 10,000 predominantly Hispanic families, said Longjohn, who is organizing a workshop to train Chicago schoolteachers in nutrition, obesity, and diabetes issues.

The Chicago Children's Museum recently held dance and yoga workshops designed to get families more active, and its work with the consortium has inspired plans for a permanent fitness-oriented exhibit expected to open by 2006, said the museum's Mark Saalfeld.

With about 500,000 visitors each year, the museum has seen plenty of overweight children. Collaborating with the consortium, he said, "has helped our thinking about what our role is in terms of the healthy development of children."

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