updated 10/6/2004 11:03:31 AM ET 2004-10-06T15:03:31

Schools may need more money and regulators may need more authority to help America’s children from spiraling into obesity, experts and politicians told Congress Tuesday.

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Children need help to get away from television and video games and outside to walk, play and exercise, they said. And corporations can help with programs aimed at educating kids about good nutrition and exercise, they added.

“Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and doctor who also chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

More than 9 million U.S. children are obese, meaning their health is at serious risk. Another 15 percent of all children are overweight.

Not only do they risk being fat all their lives, doctors say, but they have a higher than average risk of heart disease and diabetes.

“This generation of kids growing up today could be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents,” Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin told the committee hearing.

“Half-measures won’t work. It has to be a comprehensive national response. It is a clarion call to Congress for us to act boldly.”

Last week, the Institute of Medicine said it would take a full national effort to battle childhood obesity. The independent group, which advises the federal government on health matters, said food and drink labels need be clearer. It also asked restaurants to come up with more healthy alternatives for children.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd said he hoped the House could be persuaded to pass a bill introduced in the Senate last year aimed at reducing obesity, particularly among children and adolescents.

The bill, sponsored by Frist, Dodd and Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, would authorize $60 million for a demonstration community obesity program and give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more authority to gather information on childhood fitness levels.

Congress is scheduled to adjourn Friday until after the Nov. 2 elections.

The CDC’s Dixie Snider said the formula for obesity is clear -- eating more calories than are burned off with exercise. But more research is needed on how to get people to change their habits in a world where they are surrounded by rich food and comforts.

“We still have a ways to go to understand what are the best ways to effect changes in personal behavior,” Snider said.

Lynn Swann, chairman of the President’s Council of Physical Fitness and Sports, said schools need extra funding to create exercise and sports programs that all children can take part in. “In many cases, the only people who participate in sports are the best athletes,” he said. 


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