NEW ORLEANS -- The percentage of obese people in Louisiana has nearly doubled since 1999, and two-thirds of the state's schoolchildren get less than 20 minutes of vigorous activity a day, officials said Tuesday.
The obesity rate was 17.7 percent in 1999 and is now nearly 34 percent and nearly two-thirds of Louisiana residents -- and almost half of its children and teenagers -- are either obese or overweight, said Bruce Greenstein, secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals.
"The saddest statistics are those involving schoolchildren," Greenstein said at a news conference about the 2011 fitness report card released Tuesday by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
He said DHH is working on a website to track exercise and goals, letting families work together and challenge others. The LSU and Southern University Agricultural Centers described work they are doing with children, but most of the programs described by various agencies target adults.
"We are in charge of our own health," Greenstein said.
The health department is working with the state departments of education, children and family services, and juvenile justice on a number of children's health programs, spokeswoman Lisa Faust said afterward. "That work is in development, and today we focused on things more fully developed," she said.
"We feel very strongly that parents are the key to healthier children," Faust said. "While schools always have a role and we will work with them as we always have but it's imperative we work with parents who are so key to their children's health."
Fewer than one-quarter of high-school students get at least an hour a day of aerobic physical activity, though about 44.5 percent participate in muscle-strengthening exercise such as push-ups, sit-ups or weight-lifting, it said.
It said only about one-third of Louisiana's children aged 6 to 17 participate in at least 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity a day, and about 39 percent of those 10 to 18 can pass an aerobic fitness test.
About 40 percent spend more than two hours a day watching TV or videos or playing video games, and nearly one-quarter spend that much time using computers, including computer games.
Nearly 31 percent of all high-school students in the state have used some tobacco product, with some using more than one. Almost 16 percent have used cigarettes, nearly 11 percent have smoked cigars and more than 9 percent have used snuff.
Three previous report cards gave Louisiana's children a D in physical fitness.
"Given the lack of new data ... we decided to forego assigning a grade and focus on health targets for improvement by year 2020," said Peter Katzmarzyk, Pennington's associate executive director for population science and chairman of the report card research advisory committee.
The goals are modeled on a federal initiative called Healthy People 2020, but sets higher goals than its push for a 10 percent improvement in most categories, he said. Louisiana's report calls for increasing physical activity and decreasing time spent in front of TVs and computers by 40 percent, and decreasing overweight and obesity and increasing aerobic fitness by 20 percent.
"You think 40 percent is a lot," Katzmarzyk said. But, he said, only 9.7 percent of high-school students eat at least the recommended three servings of vegetables and only 3.5 percent have the recommended four or more servings of fruit.
A 40 percent improvement would mean 13.6 percent of high-school students getting enough vegetables "and five percent -- only five percent -- of our kids eating sufficient fruit.
I know it's low, but it's a step in the right direction," he said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)