IMAGE: Ledarious Patterson
Danny Johnston  /  AP
Ledarious Patterson, 9, exercises with a hula hoop.
updated 8/16/2006 9:18:59 PM ET 2006-08-17T01:18:59

Rhonda Sanders received an eye-opening letter from her daughter's school three years ago: At age 10, her 5-foot, 137-pound child was heavier than 98 percent of her peers.

After a regimen that included the family jumping rope in the backyard, swapping bottled water for soda and eating more fruit, Sanders' daughter last year was 5 feet 6 inches and weighed 120 pounds.

"There was something about getting that letter that changed us," Sanders said Wednesday as Arkansas unveiled new body-mass index numbers used to assess childhood obesity.

The percentage of Arkansas schoolchildren overweight or at risk of becoming overweight was 37.5 percent this year, down from 38.1 percent three years ago. The most recent canvass covered 371,082 of Arkansas' 450,000 public school children.

"The runaway train has been stopped in Arkansas," said Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has lost 110 pounds since doctors diagnosed diabetes in 2003. "This train was moving with extraordinary momentum downhill, and it appeared (there) would be little we could do to slow it."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say Arkansas' schoolchildren are still heavier than most nationwide but praised the state for taking steps to address the problem.

"We're a long way from being able to state nationally that we're turning the corner," said Howell Wechsler, director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

Arkansas began weighing students in 2004 to determine their body-mass index, an indicator of whether people carry an appropriate amount of weight for their height. Several states, including California, Florida and Pennsylvania, have adopted similar programs.

Rather than classifying children as obese — as an adult BMI calculator does — Arkansas categorizes kids as overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

Nationally, 17 percent of children are overweight, the CDC says. Arkansas' rate is 20.4 percent; students on the edge, considered to be "at risk," total 17.1 percent.

"Arkansas is the only state now that shows an actual arrest of that progression," Huckabee said. "I think it's going to help to move other states toward taking a more aggressive role in confronting the issue of childhood obesity."

Arkansas' obesity rates were highest among Hispanic boys and black girls, with more than half the Hispanic boys in grades 3-7 and nearly half the black girls in grades 5-9 identified.

Nearly 80,000 Arkansas students were not tested. Some were pregnant, some parents or students declined, and some were absent the day of the test.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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