Health and Fitness Expo Addresses District’s High Child Obesity Rate

US Soccer Foundation and DC United Women team up at event to help end child obesity in urban areas.

The US Soccer Foundation’s Soccer for Success program aims to combat childhood obesity in urban areas. DC has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the nation. Photograph courtesy of the US Soccer Foundation’s Facebook page.

NBC4 held its annual Health and Fitness Expo this past weekend at the Washington Convention Center, bringing in more than 3,500 health-care providers, nonprofits, and other businesses to answer Washingtonians’ health-related questions for free. For many, particularly the uninsured, the expo provided a valuable opportunity for free health screenings: Vendors offered everything from blood-pressure checks to HIV screenings and memory assessments. Locals and their kids joined in by the trainload—more than 85,000 attended, according to NBC4—for these screenings, and for updates on current health-care issues like autism treatment and childhood obesity prevention, which was of particular interest.

The US Soccer Foundation’s space was the place to be (although the funnel cake stand was noticeably popular, as well), with lines of kids wrapped around the “field” all day waiting to play, many for the third or fourth time. The foundation teamed up with DC United Women (the 2011 W-League rookie club of the year) to create an interactive fitness area for little ones, where teams of four or five learned basic soccer skills and played until they ran out of steam (five minutes at a time).

The organizers’ larger goals, says Krista Washington of the US Soccer Foundation, are to get kids to move their bodies; to teach parents how to combat childhood obesity; and to spread the word about their Soccer for Success program, which aims to spread those practices in urban areas throughout the country.

These goals are particularly important here in the District, where children 10 to 17 years old are obese at rates far exceeding the national average of 16.4 percent, according to data compiled by the Food Research & Action Center. Twenty percent of kids in that age range in the District are obese, while Virginia’s and Maryland’s kids fall just under the national average, at 15.2 percent and 13.5 percent, respectively.

Why the lower obesity rates in the suburbs? Because, among other factors, “urban areas lack the space to play,” says Washington, adding that kids in the ’burbs are more likely to be provided with opportunities to be active than kids in the city.

Enter Soccer for Success, a program that works to combat obesity in the District with after-school soccer instruction housed in about a dozen District schools, and in parks during the warmer months. Run in conjunction with DC United’s charitable arm, United for DC, the 24-week program provides soccer training to registrants for 90 minutes three times a week. In addition to the supervised physical activity Soccer for Success brings to DC elementary and middle school students, the foundation provides mentorship and nutrition education, all aimed at hooking kids on soccer and making them healthier adolescents.

According to Washington, soccer works “because it requires constant moderate to vigorous movement” that keeps the heart rate up—the perfect recipe for weight control. And if the showing at the expo is any indication, it’s as fun for kids as it is healthy.