Clinic opened to study childhood obesity

The 40 young women they invite onto campus will spend about three hours a week huffing and puffing along to workout routines disguised as Xbox video games.

With nearly half of all Louisiana children classified as either overweight or obese, the girls in this particular 12-week study figure to be just one of the earliest groups invited to Pennington over the next several years to study what causes childhood obesity and how it can be curtailed.

When left unchecked, obesity in children can lead to diabetes in adults. When left untreated, the disease can lead to blindness, kidney disease and heart problems.

The girls will do their workouts as part of Pennington’s Childhood Obesity and Diabetes Research program.

Researchers involved in the program will do their work in a newly christened pediatric research clinic.

It’s 14,000 square feet of examination rooms, game rooms, exercise facilities, an outdoor playground with a spongy playing surface for smaller kids and a demonstration kitchen where parents can learn tips on how to cook healthy meals for their children.

The former laboratory space was retooled into a fully functional research clinic late last year thanks to $6.4 million in funding from Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature.

Jindal was at Pennington on Wednesday for the opening of the clinic. The governor called childhood obesity one of the gravest issues facing the population today, and one of the most expensive health crises the state will face for years down the road.

Jindal said 10 percent of all health care spending in Louisiana is directed toward obesity.

It’s a problem he said is reflected in the ballooning costs that states and the federal government are paying to provide health care for the elderly and the poor.

“Worst of all, it’s reflected in poorer outcomes and lower quality of life for our people,” Jindal said. “This clinic is going to go a long way toward improving the nutrition of our children. It will help them to live fuller and happier lives.”

The proper name of the clinic is the Translational Research Clinic for Children.

It was built for people like Peter Katzmarzyk. Internationally known as an expert on childhood obesity, he arrived at Pennington seven years ago to further his research.

Katzmarzyk, on Tuesday, was especially proud of the clinic’s game room, which researchers are calling “Klub Kinect.” It’s where overweight teens will be studied as they exercise along to video games.

It’s programs like these and others studied at Pennington, he said, where researchers learned that the circumference of a child’s waist is a more reliable health predictor than height and weight.

By dedicating space specifically to study childhood obesity, Katzmarzyk said Pennington has given itself an advantage in securing national research grants.

Katzmarzyk said the long-term goal of opening the clinic is to take the information gleaned from research to create health-conscious programs that can be used in schools.

“We could go a long way if we promote physical activity. Kids want to be active,” he said. “It’s adults that are always telling them to sit still and to stop running around.”

LSU System President F. King Alexander said promoting healthy lifestyles in children is “perhaps the most important educational concept that we can instill in our students.” He called healthy living an economic issue for everyone.

“We’re living in a state where we’re at the highest percentage of students and children with childhood obesity, that have not been able or fortunate enough to develop these good health habits,” Alexander said.

“And so this issue is more than a health issue. … If we do not tackle this issue, this issue by itself will swamp our state budgets for decades to come. We will not have funding for K-12 schools; we will not have funding for higher education, so there is an urgency in tackling this issue.”