ATLANTA - State statistics show about 40 percent of Georgia children are overweight or obese, and a local hospital is working with families to help fight that.
When Steven Myers was 12 years old he spent his days eating bags of popcorn and watching television.
"Just hanging out, being a couch potato," Myers said.
Years of inactivity and bad eating habits caused his weight to balloon. Doctors classified the middle-schooler as obese and at risk for Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
About 75 percent of all Georgia students couldn't pass a simple physical fitness test.
Myers' mother said she was concerned about her son's weight gain and knew something had to change, so she signed him up for the Smart4Life program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
CHOA officials said the program meets families in the process of making lifestyle changes.
"I think it's not so much that families make that choice, it’s that it’s difficult to change," said CHOA pediatrician Dr. Stephanie Walsh. "Every family is at a different place, as far as being ready to make changes. So, maybe you're ready to make one small change in a certain area. Well, that's great. We can help you get there."
Myers learned about the importance of healthy food choices and physical activity. Now 13, he's lost more than 70 pounds and doesn't use his inhaler anymore.
"It was very hard because there were moments when I had a banana or something and I wanted a Big Mac or a quarter-pounder," Myers said. "I had to try to train myself not to eat that stuff anymore and start being healthier."
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta launched an aggressive straight talk ad campaign in 2011 about Georgia's childhood obesity crisis. Critics complained the public service announcements embarrassed and shamed overweight children. Still, CHOA officials stand behind the campaign's goal, which was to get people at least talking about a health emergency.
CHOA's Strong4Life movement takes it a step further and breaks down the problem into simple steps.
"We all need to stop focusing on weight and focus on behavior, because if we focus on behavior, the weight will find its place," said Walsh.
Strong4Life teaches children and parents the basics, such as more physical activity. It also stresses more fruits and vegetables, no matter how much kids may protest.
"My kids aren't in charge of what I buy," said Dr. Walsh. "They're getting what I buy for them and what I provide for them because that's my job as a parent."
That was key for the Myers family.
"Steven said to us, ‘How do you expect me to do this if you're going to keep bringing (unhealthy food) into the house?’" said Andrea Myers-Hendrickson, Steven's mother. "That was a light bulb moment for me."
The family made a Strong4Life family commitment, and revealed a stronger teenager in more ways than they expected.
"He's had a very successful year, not just the weight loss, but I've seen improvements with his self-esteem and self-confidence," Myers-Hendrickson said.
Steven's grades also improved to all As on his last report card.
CHOA officials stress the Strong4Life program is all about making chances that will last for the long term. That's why the overall program lasts for about a year, to give families time to make healthier changes into habits.
"You have to start somewhere and you can start small," Walsh said. "You don't have to solve everything overnight. Just pick something and keep going."
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