The Cedar Rapids Gazette Op-Ed

Using School Facilities to Fight Childhood Obesity
By Chris Atchison

Driving by a local elementary school the other day, I was amazed as I looked at the new playground. The big, sprawling structure just begged for kids to climb and hang from it. There was a tiny part of me that was jealous of this playground, until I realized what was missing.

The kids.

The playground was behind a chainlink fence, and it was locked because it was after school hours. How unfortunate for the neighborhood kids because this would be a great place to play and explore. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was representative of a new reality.

First, children just don’t have the same opportunities of generations past to simply play. You don’t have to drive by an empty playground to know that – just look at all the electronics and busy schedules occupying our children. But there are also increasingly fewer places to safely play and exercise. As schools grew concerned about liability issues, their playgrounds and facilities were closed when school employees weren’t around to monitor activities. As teachers grew busier with classroom demands, there are fewer opportunities for school sponsored events before and after hours. Plus, for many communities, there just hasn’t been money available to create a municipal alternative.

All of this has unintentionally contributed to a rising health crisis – obesity. A shocking third of America’s children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese and more than 65 % of adolescents do not get the recommended amount of physical activity each day. These trends are disturbing in the short-term and alarming in the long-term. Childhood obesity can lead to unhealthy adults who not only battle their weight but other health concerns like diabetes, high blood pressure and so much more.

We can fight back, but we need a place where children and their families can run, play, and stay active. We must follow the lead of some innovative communities across the country that are looking to schools to become those much-needed places to play. These communities are encouraging their school districts and community organizations to form shared use agreements that allow schools to stay open during non-school day hours so families can play and exercise and develop healthy habits that will carry them through life.

Yet, despite the benefits of opening schoolyards during non-school hours, some have declined to do so because unclear liability laws make it difficult for them to assess their liability if they enter into a shared use agreement. This is the case in Iowa. We need laws that clearly address school district liability and incentivize schools to share their facilities enable more schools and community organizations to form shared use partnerships that benefit everyone.

Finally, consider this: a recent survey noted that a majority — 84 percent — of children are more active in areas with open and supervised schoolyards than they would be in communities with closed facilities. Our children’s futures are heavily dependent on their health, and we cannot afford to turn children and their families away from gyms and playgrounds after school anymore. Shared use agreements are a win for school districts, community organizations and, most important, our families’ health.

So, please, let’s make it easier for schools to help in the fight against childhood obesity. Let’s unlock the doors and make for healthier communities.


Chris Atchison serves on the American Heart Association’s Commission of Consumer Health and Quality Coordinating Committee. He is also Clinical Professor and Associate Dean for Public Health Practice, University of Iowa College of Public Health and Director, State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa.

By |December 30th, 2014|Categories: Uncategorized||0 Comments

Coalition Formed to Fight Obesity in Iowa

Des Moines – September 29, 2014 – The American Heart Association – Central Iowa has announced the formation of a coalition dedicated to creating new policies that will create healthier Iowans.  The “Bridging Solutions to a Healthier Iowa” coalition is seeking to open school facilities to the general public, as well ensure safe routes to school.

“The American Heart Association and Voices for Healthy Kids have launched a national initiative to ensure that children have the resources necessary lead healthy lives,” said Stacy Frelund, Iowa Government Relations Director for the Central Iowa chapter of the AHA. “The Bridging Solutions Coalition is a group of engaged organizations from across the state that have a shared interest in this cause.  We are working to educate and advocate the need for schools to open their doors and playgrounds without fear of liability, as well as encourage communities to work towards providing solutions that increase the number of safe routes to school.”

Frelund noted that schools have been reluctant to open their playgrounds, weight rooms and gyms to the general public because they are concerned about their liability.  “There are a number of studies that cite access to exercise facilities that increase a person’s likelihood to exercise,” she said.  “By taking away the liability issue, schools will be more willing to open their doors to the community.”

“Many Iowa schools are interested in voluntarily opening their doors after hours for the health and benefit of their communities. However, the threat of bankrupting lawsuits hampers their efforts, and denies all Iowans an outlet for better health.” Frelund stated. “One of the goals of our coalition is to ask the Iowa Legislature to clarify the rules surrounding sharing these facilities with the communities. Schools are a vital part of the fabric of Iowa, and sharing these facilities will help make all Iowans, young and old, healthier.”

The coalition is also working towards increasing the amount of funding available for safe routes to schools.  Frelund said while a federal program currently exists the funding is not enough to cover the requests from year to year.  Requests for funding have included money for widening streets, fixing sidewalks, hiring crossing guards, installing traffic lights or other solutions that encourage students to walk to school.

“The goal of this coalition is to address two straightforward ways we can create access and overcome challenges that prohibit a healthy lifestyle,” said coalition member Jeneane Moody of the Iowa Public Health Association.

For more information about “Bridging Solutions to a Healthier Iowa” contact the American Heart Association – Central Iowa at stacy.frelund@heart.org.

By |November 19th, 2014|Categories: Uncategorized||0 Comments

Sharing School Gyms to Build a Healthier Iowa

Here’s a sample Letter to the Editor that may be submitted to your local newspaper.

Look in any community and what is at its center — the school.

For seven plus hours a day, it is where we send our children to learn how to be productive members of society.  This includes all the basics like reading, math, social studies, but also a new focus on exercise.  However, for many schools, once the bell rings, the doors are closed and children and their families are left on their own to figure out where they can engage in the exercise needed for their healthy life style.

Schools can offer a variety of safe, clean facilities, including running tracks, pools, gymnasiums, fitness rooms, and playgrounds.  Families can find a variety of activities to participate in on their way to a healthier life. Yet, while many schools want to open their facilities to their community, the fear of repercussions based on liability keep the doors shut.

The state legislature can change all of this. By lessening the liability burden, schools will be better positioned to help the national epidemic of obesity. This appears to be a simple solution and one I hope one that is addressed in the upcoming session.

By |November 19th, 2014|Categories: Uncategorized||0 Comments