Forced To Be Fit: What About Kids?

Cynthia Bowers is a CBS News correspondent based in Chicago.
The statistics are pretty horrifying, 17% of Americans overweight or obese. And that's just the kids. Back in the 1960's it was only 4%. And since 80% of overweight kids grow up to be overweight adults, those kids' chances of ever being slim are, well, slim.

Forty years ago Dr. Kenneth Cooper introduced America to the idea of aerobics. Today the 79-year-old is banking his future reputation on saving America's kids. He just helped convince lawmakers in the 12th fattest state, Texas, to adopt his plan, which is called the Fitnessgram. It involves a series of tests to determine a kid's level of fitness, then calls for an exercise program to be put in place.

The call to introduce the Fitnessgram to Texas schools was backed by Senator Jane Nelson. The former school teacher says she was horrified by statistics that suggest 48% of Texans will be overweight by 2025. Her research found that Texas businesses are already shelling out $3.3 billion a year on obesity-related illness.

Starting this spring, four million Texas 3rd thru 9th graders will take a series of tests that will show how they stack up physically with other kids their age. They will be tested on aerobic capacity, flexibility, and strength, among other things. Parents will be offered a chance to look at the results and go over them with their kids. Then the kids begin daily PE classes that must include moderate to vigorous activity. Dr. Cooper believes all that separates obese kids from simply being overweight is 12 minutes of exercise a day. Doesn't seem like much does it?

We traveled to El Paso to meet a little girl who says she is looking forward to the new PE program. She admits the idea of being tested worries her, even though she recently lost 15 pounds! Valerie wants to lose more weight so she won't be embarrassed to change into her gym clothes in public. Valerie told us she believes there is a thin girl inside this big one, and she wants everyone to see 'that' girl.

I asked her parents Adam and Martha how they let their daughter get so overweight to begin with. Adam says Valerie's weight wasn't something he felt comfortable bringing up. He loves his daughter and didn't want to hurt her feelings. He admits his own eating habits aren't the best. Martha says she got scared when Valerie's pediatrician said her daughter had to lose weight. She started rethinking what kind of food she keeps in the house and tried to make dinner a little earlier. But she points out that taking food away from another person is really, really hard. Both are proud of what Valerie is doing and they say she is a lot more active than she used to be. Valerie said that, at her heaviest, it was tough to get motivated to do any physical activity at all.

That's where the Fitnessgram can come in, says Dr. Cooper. He believes once kids see they can be leaner and stronger they will feel better about themselves. And as a side benefit, the Dallas doctor believes he can prove that the better shape kids are in physically, the better they will perform in school. At Episcopal Day School in Dallas, test scores went up after the Fitnessgram was implemented. In Kansas City, the program helped improve discipline. Stronger, healthier kids were less likely to get in trouble.

I'll be curious to see the results in Texas. Eight percent of overweight kids grow into overweight adults. Dr. Cooper believes if he can cut that number in half, his program will be a success.