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Teen Obesity

It’s 3 o’clock and students flood out of the school doors.

There’s a rambunctious group at the bus stop, letting off steam after a long day of classes.

I wander over and chat with them about how they spend their free time.

GLAUSSER: How old are you guys?
TEENS: (Shouting over each other) 16, 16, 14, 17, 17…

I asked what kind of stuff they like to do.

MONTAGE OF TEENS: Play Black Ops Two. Chill. Crack jokes at the bus stop. Basketball. Playing video games. Getting on my laptop.

They also told me about a popular spot to hang out, socialize, and eat:

GLAUSSER: So there’s a Wendy’s nearby?
TEENS: (all at once) Yes, yeah, there’s one right across the street. Funny everybody’s pointing to it.
GLAUSSER: Have you guys been there?
TEENS: (all at once) Yes.

They’re not the only ones who go.

The line at Wendy’s is full up.

MONTAGE OF TEENS OUTSIDE WENDY’S: Mmm, chicken sandwich, mmm you said mmm, crispy chicken deluxe, anything…

These are typical teens, doing typical teen stuff. Happens everywhere.

But some, like Susie Akers, say routines that include a lot of fast food and screen time can cause health problems.

Akers is a dietician and directs MetroHealth’s Pediatric Wellness Center.

She works with teens who are struggling with their weight.

AKERS: Most of them, honestly, are just in front of some kind of screen, whether it’s an iPod, a phone, a computer, a TV, they really are inactive unfortunately. I’m surprised if I find someone that is active more than the one hour that is recommended for teens.

Her impressions are backed up in a 2010 survey of middle-schoolers in Cuyahoga County: 60 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t exercise regularly, and another 60 percent said they watched three or more hours of TV daily.

Nearly half of the kids surveyed were overweight or obese.

Akers says many teens will skip breakfast or don’t like the school lunch:

AKERS: And they grab convenience foods, highly processed foods, a lot of times chips and sweet drinks and that’s where a lot of the weight gain happens.

And this isn’t just an inner city problem; the suburbs feel it too.

Akers and others say the nation’s rising obesity rate is a wake-up call: kids need to learn how to take care of their bodies for the long-term, and that means developing healthy habits early.

The teen years are a prime time to do this, she says, because they’re becoming independent.

Teens start making their own choices.

AKERS: I can tell my children to pick the laundry up off the floor until I’m blue in the face but it’s until they want to wear that shirt and they want it to smell good that they’re not motivated to take the clothes off the floor and get it into the wash.

Teens want control over their health, says Akers.

It can be a form of empowerment.

Metrohealth runs cooking and fitness programs geared towards teens.

They’re designed to help them build self-confidence and a healthy body.

FARRO: (Workout music starts and stays underneath) Take a deep breath up, in your nose and blow it out your mouth. One more… (scene fades to low and stays underneath next sentence)

One of those programs is called Girls with Sole.

Teen girls can come after school to work out, laugh, talk.

MAYA: You can just have fun—you can Zumba, you can dance. They laugh, joke. It’s like a big family.
MAYA: My name is Maya Bohanon and I’m from Cleveland Ohio.

15 year old Maya used to roll out of bed and watch TV until it was time for school.

She’s been coming here for three months and it’s caused her to rethink that routine.

She says, now,

MAYA: I get up on time. I eat breakfast—a healthy breakfast—and walk to school.

This is the kind of sentiment that Dr. David Katz would be happy to hear.

He’s an obesity expert with the Yale University Prevention Research Center.

About one in three kids in the U.S. are overweight or obese, Katz says, and to help change this, we need to find ways to reach teens.

KATZ: If we allow current trends to persist, I think the day will dawn and fairly soon where angina is an adolescent rite of passage alongside acne. And we get used to routinely treating adolescents for chest pain and heart attack, where all of the dreaded chronic diseases of later life become burdens we impose on our children.

He’s not all doom and gloom though.

One of his projects? A music video for teens and tweens.

SOUND: (kid rapping with beat underneath) Everywhere I go, everyone I see, I check out, what people eat. What they’re stuffing in their face—candy, muffins, ice cream, cake and they call their meal complete—with deep-fried, modified, hydrogenized—this might be a surprise but exercise is legalized. So come on, get up and unjunk yourself, unjunk yourself.

This might resonate more with public health experts than with teens, but who knows. It’s up to 30,000 hits on You-Tube.

anne.glausser@ideastream.org | 216-916-6129