By Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune reporter
March 1, 2013
First lady Michelle Obama rolled out her latest health and fitness initiative in Chicago on Thursday, just as city heath officials released new data showing 1 in 4 of the city's public school students are obese.
The "Let's Move! Active Schools" initiative, the second phase of the first lady's national campaign to fight childhood obesity, will provide grants to 50,000 schools across the country to develop physical education programs over the next five years. The $70 million program, a first-of-its-kind partnership with corporations, will be funded primarily through a $50 million donation from Nike Inc.
"Only 1 in 3 kids is active every day," Obama told the crowd at McCormick Place. "That's not just bad for their bodies, it's also bad for their minds, because being less active can actually hurt kids' academic performance as well."
Flanked by celebrity athletes, including Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, tennis star Serena Williams and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the first lady joined nearly 6,000 Chicago schoolchildren in a high-energy exercise routine as techno music blasted from loudspeakers and red and green strobe lights lit up the convention hall.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivered what he called a "10-minute commercial about the city of Chicago," pointing out its initiatives such as improved bicycle lanes, the restoration of school recess and healthy school lunches — then changed from a business suit into gym clothes and joined in.
Earlier Thursday, the mayor and Chicago Public Schools officials announced the new Healthy CPS Action Plan, a districtwide initiative providing 60 detailed strategies to improve health and wellness of students.
The newly released study from Chicago public health officials shows child obesity rates in the city are well above the national average. The study looked at public and charter school students in kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade and found that 24.9 percent were obese.
The highest obesity rate, 29.2 percent, was among sixth-graders, followed by ninth-graders at 25.4 percent and kindergarten students at 20 percent, the study showed.
Nationwide, 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to health officials, children with the highest risk of obesity are Hispanic and African-American, and those who come from low-income households. Rates were as low as 13 percent in predominantly white, higher-income Lincoln Park and as high as 33 percent in predominantly Hispanic, lower-income South Lawndale.
Thursday marked the third anniversary of the first lady's "Let's Move" initiative, which promotes healthy eating and exercise for the country's youths. The new initiative focuses primarily on physical activity and requires participating schools to provide students an hour of exercise each day.
After changing from the pinstripe pantsuit she wore at the start of the program to a red and black exercise suit, the first lady, surrounded by 10 well-known athletes, gave a pep talk to screaming young people surrounding the stage.
She said the choices people make give them power to choose the life they want.
"Whether you spend your day watching TV or whether you use that time to pick up your books and finish your homework … that's your choice," she said. "Whether you fill your bodies with chips and candy or fruits and vegetables … that's on you. Whether you sit around all day playing video games or get up and move your bodies, these are all the choices that will determine who you will become and what you can achieve."
As she often does when speaking to young people in Chicago, Obama talked about her own childhood growing up in an apartment on the South Side, sharing a tiny bedroom with her brother and finding it difficult to study because of the noise.
"I grew up in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, faced the same struggles, shared the same hopes and dreams that all of you share," she said. "I am you."
Douglas, the 17-year-old gymnast who won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, drew loud cheers from the crowd as she stepped onto the stage. In an interview afterward, she said youths relate to her because of her "happy, bubbly spirit."
"If a kid has big dreams, I say go for it," she said. "It doesn't matter if people say you can't do it because you can do whatever you put your mind to.
"We all have hardships growing up. We want them to know there will be struggles and hardships, but you can still go after your dreams."
Healthy eating and exercise helps attain those goals, she said, but she does allow herself to indulge sometimes.
"I splurge on cinnamon rolls," she said. That's OK, she added, as long as exercise is part of a regular routine.
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