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Fitness test replaces BMI in school obesity bill

ATLANTA - What's in a number? Apparently quite a lot when you're talking about kids and weight.

Fearing a backlash from parents, Georgia lawmakers have stripped an anti-obesity bill of a key provision that would have forced students to climb on the scale for twice-yearly 'weigh-ins.' The data would be used to determine whether a child has a health body mass index, calculated through a combination of height and weight measurements.

Several other states have BMI checks in their schools aimed at reining in the explosion of childhood obesity. Supporters say it often startles parents into action, prompting them to seek medical help or change eating habits at home.

But critics argue that a person's BMI 'score' is a simplistic way of look at overall health and worried that it would add to the stigma faced by overweight children.

Under the revamped bill, Georgia students would have to complete a physical fitness test instead. The details of that test would be determined by the state Department of Education, but the use of BMI would be banned.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joseph Carter, said data shows that one in three Georgia children is either obese or at risk of obesity.

'This is a serious public health issue,' the Tifton Republican said.

Carter's original legislation would have collected the BMI data of students and combined it to come up with a school average. That number would then be posted on school Web sites so that Georgians could see how their school stacked up, much like they currently do with test scores.

The BMI mandate passed in the state Senate over the objections of some GOP lawmakers who labeled it 'nanny state legislation.' It faced a rocky road in the House from Republican lawmakers who worried it was too intrusive.

Carter rewrote the measure to include a fitness test instead, which would likely include things like push ups and running.

Health advocates and physicians groups remained supportive, saying the new test was a more well-rounded way to judge a child's overall health.

But even the scaled-back version was the target of criticism at a House hearing on Wednesday.

Some worried that a fitness test might be as demoralizing to out-of-shape students as a weigh in.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said he fully expected many students to perform poorly on the fitness tests.

'My question is 'so what?' he asked. 'What do we do then?'

Carter said he hoped that recognizing the problem would create momentum for improvement. The bill would also mandate that schools adhere to state education department guidelines regarding physical education requirements. A recent report found that many schools are not offering the minimum physical education time required by the state.