The problem starts early. A third of Anchorage children, for example, come to kindergarten weighing too much. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults who face many health risks and a higher chance of dying too young.
We know we can fix this. So we have a physical activity challenge for Alaska families. It's fun and it's free.
Healthy Futures, the signature program of the nonprofit Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, is a new partner with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Providence Health & Services Alaska also is a primary sponsor of Healthy Futures. The department and Healthy Futures have a shared mission: to empower Alaska's children to build the habit of daily physical activity. We are working together to run a three-month challenge to encourage Alaska's kids to play every day. It's called the Healthy Futures Challenge. It will start in February but we're getting ready for it now.
Participation is free and children win prizes for being active and recording this activity on a Healthy Futures log form. Schools with the highest participation can receive grants to support their physical activity programs. The types of activity we're talking about are doable for every family. For kids, play means running around outside with friends, walking the dog, playing tag. Taking this on as a family is an excellent way to spend more time with your kids.
We are promoting this challenge statewide with television and radio public service announcements and through other media. Parents, you can support your child's participation in the Healthy Futures Challenge by being physically active with your child and by helping your child to complete his or her log. Visit www.healthyfuturesak.org in December and January to find out if your child's school is signed up.
Here's more about the challenge:
• Who: All Alaska elementary school children, kindergarten through sixth grade.
• What: During the challenge period, children in participating schools will keep a log of the physical activity they do outside gym class. Each month, they'll turn in the log at school. School staff and volunteers will track the children's progress. Healthy Futures will mail prizes to the school at no cost to the teachers or staff, and staff will hand them out to children.
• When: February, March and April 2012
• Where: Primarily through Alaska schools, with the help of Healthy Futures, the Department of Health and Social Services, school staff, teachers and parents across Alaska
And now to the most important question: Why? Physical activity is important to our children's physical and emotional health. Active children are more likely to have healthy weights, energy and self-confidence. They are more likely to perform better academically at school.
It's critical that we encourage behaviors that lead to healthy weights. Research shows that childhood obesity can lead to adult obesity. Obese adults are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and die prematurely. Obesity is costly to our state. Each year, obesity-related medical expenses cost an estimated $459 million in Alaska; about 25 percent of that cost is paid with funds through Medicare and Medicaid programs.
We hope Alaska elementary schools will sign up for the Healthy Futures Challenge. We hope parents will support their children and get out and play every day with them.
We encourage parents to support their schools and volunteer to help school staff track children's progress each month and distribute prizes. We encourage elementary school principals and staff to visit www.healthyfuturesak.org now to sign up for the Healthy Futures Challenge that begins in February. Signing up now means we'll have all the information ready when it comes time to send prizes.
We all need to work together to help Alaska's children be as healthy as possible. Thank you for stepping up for the challenge.
Ward Hurlburt is chief medical officer of the state Department of Health and Social Services and director of the Division of Public Health. Cindy Norquest is program director for Healthy Futures.