Dr. John H. Armstrong : School health programs can change lives, save millions


Unhealthy weight has affected children in Florida well before I was appointed State Surgeon General in 2012. I knew when I took office that combating this epidemic would be my highest priority – and it was clear that doing so wouldn’t be as simple as changing the meals served in our school cafeterias.

To answer the challenge of weight, the Florida Department of Health launched Healthiest Weight Florida in January 2013. Healthiest Weight Florida is a public-private collaboration bringing together state agencies, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups, businesses and entire communities to help Florida’s children and adults make consistent, informed choices about healthy eating and active living.

While unhealthy weight among our youth is still high, the strides we have made in recent years show promise for improving a previously bleak situation. Healthiest Weight Florida is making a difference in our children’s health and aims to save our state millions of dollars in the future.

Despite our momentum, normalizing the body weight of our youngest residents remains a crucial goal. Reaching children before they develop habits that could be harmful later in life is key to ensuring they grow to be healthy adults. In Florida, the per-capita health care expenditure for obese or overweight adults is $5,650 more than for healthy weight adults. When you take this into account, it is easy to understand why our children’s health is no longer just a concern for parents but for the state as a whole.

In addition to Healthiest Weight Florida, numerous nutrition and wellness programs designed to improve children’s health have been put into practice across Florida in the past few years. One program that has seen exemplary success toward this cause is the CHAMPIONS Program, first implemented in Leon County and now expanded to several nearby counties.

CHAMPIONS, launched a decade ago by Capital Health Plan in partnership with Leon County Schools, is a prevention- and results-driven school fitness program that stresses the importance of health and wellness to our state’s students. The program is designed to improve a number of skills in students, such as strength and balance, while working to lower weight and body mass index.

According to a new study, CHAMPIONS has seen a decrease in student unhealthy weight every year since 2008. With an annual cost of just $80 per student, the program has helped normalize the weight of more than 500 obese or overweight students on average annually. If even half of these students maintain a healthy body weight into adulthood, the study concludes, the health care savings in the Big Bend area alone would exceed $1.5 million per year over the course of these students’ lives.

There are many pieces to the weight puzzle and getting new and innovative programs involved is a major step in our mission to improve the health of all people in Florida. My hope is that the benefits of the CHAMPIONS program can be replicated across our state. By reshaping environments and encouraging kids to be active, we stand the best chance of improving unhealthy weight in Florida, both now and in the future.

Dr. John H. Armstrong is Florida’s surgeon general.

Guest Author


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