As part of its mission of educating and inspiring families to make healthy lifestyle choices, Penn State Hershey PRO Wellness Center has developed and tested a body mass index (BMI) screening letter that leads parents to tools and resources for making healthy lifestyle changes for their families. To date, more than 200 schools across Pennsylvania have expressed interest in possibly using the new letter.
Childhood obesity has become a critical health epidemic, affecting 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States. In 2013, Pennsylvania was named the 20th most obese state, with 33 percent of school students either overweight or obese. Given the significant amount of time youth spend in school, school-based behavioral interventions are necessary in the fight against childhood obesity.
Students in Pennsylvania get weighed and measured to determine their BMI as a part of state-mandated annual health screenings in schools. A BMI-for-age percentile is calculated by comparing a child's BMI to those of children of the same age and gender. These measurements are used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems in the future.
Assessing BMI is a quick and simple screening method that can serve as a measure of body fat. More than 25 percent of all states require schools to carry out BMI screening and parental notification programs. Despite the statewide mandate in Pennsylvania, limited evidence supports best practices for accomplishing this formidable task.
Although BMI screening and notification programs hold promise of addressing a serious issue, school-based interventions have been unsuccessful at reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity. This is believed to be due to the lack of follow-up with appropriate nutritional education programming for children who screen positive as overweight or obese.