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Parents play key role in keeping kids active, preventing obesity

ATLANTA -- Whether you liked the billboards that sprouted up around the state earlier this year or not -- you know, the ones with slogans like "it's hard to be a little girl when you're not" and "fat kids become fat adults" -- there's one fact you can't deny.

Georgia's children (and, by extension, Gwinnett County's) have a weight problem.

Georgia has the second highest childhood obesity rate in the country, with nearly 40 percent of its children overweight or obese. It's about the same in metro Atlanta.

"It's just as significant as it is in the rest of Georgia," said Dr. Stephanie Walsh, director of wellness at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

Walsh said too much "screen time" -- hours in front of the TV, computer, iPad, etc. -- can definitely be a factor. But she said parents that visit her office also complain about simply not having enough time (or energy after a long day's work) to get their kids going.

Unfortunately, the childhood obesity epidemic rests primarily on the shoulders of parents.

"Parents have the responsibility to be a good role model," Walsh said. "If they see you eating vegetables, they'll eat vegetables. If they see you being active, they'll be active. They want to be like you."

"Just do something your kids enjoy and spend time with them," she added."

Primrose Schools in Buford and Gainesville recently got together as part of a national "Family Dance-Off" program, which encourages physical activity for kids while raising money for children's hospitals.

"The Family Dance-Off is a fun way for families to enjoy physical activity together while contributing to a great cause," said Jenifer McKnight, owner of the schools. "Plus, dance can support the development of important social, cognitive and motor skills in children."

Walsh said fitness for kids can be as simple as that -- dancing. Or a scavenger hunt. Or an indoor basketball hoop. Or the active-type video games, like Wii and XBox Kinect.

The reason kids don't necessarily like going on walks with their parents is because, unlike adults, children exercise best in spurts. If you take your kids on a walk, challenge them to race to a lightpost and back.

A trip to the park is as good as anything.

"The playground is really boot camp for kids," Walsh said.

Walsh said the newest data shows there may be a stabilization in childhood obesity rates in Georgia and elsewhere. But there's still a long way to go.

"It's still at an extremely high rate," she said, "but we can't start decreasing the issue before we stabilize it."