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Southern Obesity Summit: Making Health a Priority in the South

PHOTO: How to help overweight children become healthier is one of the key discussion topics at the Southern Obesity Summit in Louisville. The annual forum brings together community, government and healthcare leaders from 16 southern states. Image courtesy of Southern Obesity Summit.
PHOTO: How to help overweight children become healthier is one of the key discussion topics at the Southern Obesity Summit in Louisville. The annual forum brings together community, government and healthcare leaders from 16 southern states. Image courtesy of Southern Obesity Summit.
October 6, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - With obesity considered a public health crisis by most experts, this week in Louisville, the focus is on solutions at the "Southern Obesity Summit." Community, government and healthcare leaders from 16 states are gathered to decide what changes can be made to help southerners become healthier.

Carolyn Dennis is with the Shaping Kentucky's Future Collaborative, co-host of the three-day summit.

"There are seven main pillars of policy change they're trying to get folks across these 16 southern states to work on, since the south tends to be one of the worst in the country as far as obesity goes," says Dennis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kentucky has the highest percentage of obese high school students in the nation; 18 percent last year.

Jamie Sparks, project director of Kentucky's Coordinated School Health Program, says schools have to become leading "agents of change."

"Health education and physical education need to be everyday subjects, just like math and science and reading and the state that does that will be the state that sees the greatest outcome," says Sparks.

While Kentucky has established physical education and health standards for its schools, Sparks says individual districts decide how to teach those standards, and how often. He adds the only PE requirement in Kentucky schools is a half-credit for high school graduation.

Kentucky's adult population has the fifth highest obesity rate in the country, according to a new report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Dennis, a registered dietitian, says the epidemic spreads far beyond health concerns. For example, she says absenteeism costs employers, nationwide, billions of dollars.

"The financial implications from that are enormous, so that has really drawn business in to being concerned about the issue of obesity," says Dennis.

Considered the largest regional obesity prevention event in the U.S., the Southern Obesity Summit runs through Tuesday. This is the first time it has been held in Kentucky.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY