Washington, Dc — A recent finding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that the childhood obesity rate leveled off isn't necessarily a cause for celebration in the fitness industry, fitness professionals say, but it may be a start. The obesity rate among children is still high, with 16 percent of children classified as obese and 32 percent classified as overweight. Forty years ago, less than 5 percent of children were obese.

From 1999 to 2006, the increase in the obesity rate for children 2 years old to 19 years old was statistically insignificant, according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association written by Cynthia Ogden of the CDC. Researchers compared height and weight measurements from government surveys of children taken from 2003 to 2006 to calculate body mass index. They then compared those numbers to data from 1999, finding that the rates didn't change in any statistically significant manner.

“This is cautiously good news,” says Dr. James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado and founder of America on the Move, a program that encourages Americans to make small changes that will improve their health.

The media attention on the problem and schools changing their lunch menus and vending machines to include healthier selections may have contributed to the smaller increase in obesity, he says.

Geoff Dyer, founder of Lifestyle Family Fitness in St. Petersburg, FL, agrees, saying that his teenage son has noticed more vitamin drinks and healthy foods at his school today compared to in the past.

“The greater awareness and education is paying off,” Dyer says. “The constant information has made him more cognizant of what he's supposed to eat.”

Still, the CDC report did not show a decrease in childhood obesity. Hill is cautious about the possibility that rates might decline in the next few years. He says that more studies need to be done, particularly looking at various ethnic and economic groups to see if obesity rates are holding steady or increasing in those groups.

“Whether we'll see a decline in five years, I don't know,” he says. “I think we're likely to see something gradual. The trend is still up, just not statistically.”

To help combat the obesity problem, Dyer's 56 clubs are offering free workouts through the summer to teenagers, even if their parents aren't members of the club.

“We've been trying to get clubs across the country to adopt this program,” Dyer says, adding that some of his friends have agreed to offer the program at their facilities, too. Last year, 6,000 teenagers went through the Lifestyle Family Fitness clubs as part of this program, he says.

A symposium at the 55th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine last month addressed other ways to combat childhood obesity. Bryan K. Smith, Ph. D., who chaired the symposium, said that the most promising interventions seem to be those that are multidisciplinary because these approaches promote increasing physical activity, discourage sedentary behaviors and encourage healthy eating choices.

Smith says schools are an ideal location to offer interventions since they provide structured environments and all children must attend school. However, time constraints, funding issues and practical issues (such as transportation home) are all issues that schools must deal with to be a medium for these programs, he says.