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Three kids laying in grass

Obesity—it’s a devastating public-health crisis for the United States. Today, one-third of all adults are now classified as obese, a figure that has more than doubled over the last 30 years. And then there are the hard-to-believe effects of the epidemic on children:

In the past 30 years, the prevalence of childhood obesity has more than doubled among children ages 2-5, has tripled among youth ages 6-11, and has more than tripled among adolescents ages 12-19.      

The most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (2007-2008) indicate that about 17 percent of children ages 2-19 years are obese.  An additional 15 percent are considered overweight.  Childhood obesity can increase risk for a wide array of health problems; for more information on obesity in general and the risks of childhood overweight, visit the Obesity and Health Problems page.   

Addressing the Issue

The National Institutes of Health is doing something about it through We Can!® (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) a science-based, turn-key national education program that has grown into a national movement since its launch on
June 1, 2005. The program aims to help children stay at a healthy weight through community action, strategic partnership development, and national news and events

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) conducted several research and planning activities to help create this unique approach, including:

  • A review of the science-based literature on obesity prevention
  • An environmental scan of other programs—either underway or planned by Federal agencies—and national organizations that focus on overweight and obesity prevention
  • An assessment of Hearts N' Parks, a community-based partnership between NHLBI and the National Recreation and Park Association to encourage heart-healthy eating and increased physical activity in youth and adults in park and recreation settings
  • A two-day 2004 NHLBI Strategy Development Workshop brought together more than 70 experts in the field (i.e., leading researchers, public health experts, nutritionists and dietitians, youth marketing experts, community center representatives)

The development of We Can! was also based on several different behavior change theories, including:

  • Social Cognitive Theory: Individual behavior is dynamically determined and fluid, and influenced by personal factors and an environment in which an individual can observe the actions of others and learn the consequences of those behaviors.
  • Community Organization Theory: Community groups come together to actively identify common problems or goals, and then mobilize resources and develop and implement strategies to reach these goals, to better evaluate and solve health and social problems.
  • Diffusion of Innovations Theory: Communication is a two-way process in which opinion leaders mediate the impact of mass media on the public, thereby giving social networks (or interpersonal channels) greater value.

The outcome of these activities was the development of a program that uniquely targets parents and families as a primary group for influencing youth audiences. In its report, Preventing Childhood Obesity, the Institute of Medicine's Committee on Prevention of Obesity in Children and Youth reviewed and praised this type of approach—one that translates and communicates intervention science for youth, parents, and families.

Last Updated: February 13, 2013