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Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services


Washington Convention Center


Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Remarks to the NIEHS/NIH Conference on Environmental Solutions to Obesity in America's Youth

Good morning. Thank you, Dr. Carmona, for that kind introduction. And welcome, everyone, to this conference on obesity and the environment.

I�d like to congratulate Dr. Schwartz on his recent appointment as Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. I�d also like to thank Dr. Julie Gerberding and Lynn Swann for their inspiring comments and for encouraging Americans to be healthy.

As Governor of Utah, I was the honorary co-chairman of Envision Utah�a quality growth partnership that works to keep Utah beautiful, prosperous, and neighborly. I learned that how we grow matters, and that the choices we make about our built environment will define our future and provide lasting benefits.

Smart growth attracts prosperity, because people care where they live. Smart growth protects nature by keeping development within reasonable limits. And smart growth encourages good health, because walkable communities make it easy and natural to be active.

I found when I was at the Environmental Protection Agency that it was easier to prevent pollution than to try to clean it up after it happens. The same is true when it comes to health care. It�s easier to promote wellness and prevent disease than to treat it. Ideally, diseases are prevented when possible, controlled when necessary, and treated when appropriate.

And a key factor in our health is our environment. Today, you are discussing ways to promote health by strengthening the environment around us. After all, the built environment offers options for where to live, work, and play, and those options affect how much activity we get.

In traditional neighborhoods, many people can walk or cycle to work, shop, worship, learn, and play. They may get plenty of exercise without any special effort.

But the way many of us live now encourages us to spend more time in the car or bus than on our feet. It�s all too easy to put off exercise and to put on a few extra pounds. And in many communities, there aren�t safe places to walk, cycle, or exercise.

So today we�re discussing ways to make it easier for people to be active and healthy.

Over all, Americans are healthier than we were a few decades ago. Unfortunately, more of us are overweight. In 1960, about 45% of adults were overweight or obese. That was bad enough. Now, almost two-thirds of all adults are overweight or obese. Overweight and obesity increase our risk for developing many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and some types of cancer. These diseases can be deadly. They�re certainly costly. They can reduce quality of life. And they�re all largely preventable.

The change in children is dramatic. In the 1960s, back when I was running around outside and playing pickup games of baseball with my friends, only about 4% of children and adolescents were overweight. But that number has quadrupled to 16%.

And we�re seeing the consequences. Kids are developing Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. They�re significantly increasing their chances of heart disease later in life. African-American girls and Mexican-American boys are at especially high risk for being overweight or obese.

But the good news is that we can reverse this trend. We can improve our quality of life.

President Bush appreciates the need for a healthy environment as a means to a healthy America. The President has always set a strong personal example for the nation by being fit himself. He loves to bike and he works out regularly. And relaxation for him means going to his ranch in Texas and chopping down brush and clearing trails.

Three years ago he began investing in the smart growth�and in many cases slimming�of America�s bodies with some innovative programs under his new Steps to a Healthier U.S. initiative. This initiative sent out more than $35 million in grants to communities across America last year with a primary goal of creating healthier environments so their citizens would become healthier residents.

Communities are using this grant money to organize walking programs, institute workplace exercise programs, improve healthy food choices in schools, coordinate school health programs, offer the public health programs through local schools and recreation programs, and provide an important environmental intervention such as smoking cessation programs. Through the Steps initiative, we�re working to shift from a disease care system to a health care system.

And we have numerous other initiatives to encourage healthy choices. FDA is revising the food label to help consumers better understand nutrition information. The revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide the latest science on how good dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for chronic disease. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality released two DVDs last year to help children and their parents make healthy choices. CDC is supporting programs to prevent obesity in schools, communities, faith-based organizations, and other settings. And NIH has an obesity research initiative that coordinates $440 million in obesity research across the institutes.

And I�m pleased to announce the Department�s latest effort called �We Can! Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition.� This NIH campaign seeks to prevent overweight and obesity among youth ages 8 to 13.

We Can! provides resources and community-based programs for parents, caregivers, and youth that focus on encouraging healthy eating, increasing physical activity, and reducing sedentary time.

The science-based We Can! program helps parents teach their children how to live healthy lives.

  • Eat smaller portions. But be sure to eat plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables.
  • Consume fewer high-fat, energy-dense, and nutrient-poor foods such as French fries, bacon, or doughnuts.
  • Eat less sugar. Look at the sugar content of desserts, snacks, and sodas.
  • Children should play outside for at least an hour every day and read books instead of simply watching television.

All of these are good guidance for parents to improve their children�s health and energy.

In conclusion, we�re working hard to prevent and reduce the incidence of overweight and obesity in America. But we must solve this problem together, as families, as communities, and as a nation. I believe that to change a nation, you have to change a heart. So we�re working to have government, schools, employers, restaurants, insurance companies, and the medical community come together to support better health for our citizens, our families, and our communities. Together, we can take meaningful steps to a Healthier U.S.�because how we grow matters.

Thank you.

Last revised: June 1, 2005


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