The Reality Behind the Documentary – UW Health’s Pediatric Fitness Clinic

When film crews visited the UW Health Pediatric Fitness Clinic, it wasn’t for the latest Hollywood film – though it felt a little bit like that. It was for a documentary about the very real crisis of obesity in the U.S.

HBO and the Institute of Medicine, in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, created the four-part documentary series that brought together the nation’s leading research institutions. Part three, “Children in Crisis” focused on childhood obesity and the challenges facing kids and parents today. The Pediatric Fitness Clinic and a few of its patients were featured in the episode.

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“It’s a sensitive issue,” says Randy Clark, exercise physiologist and clinic manager of the Pediatric Fitness Clinic. “But, we trusted that HBO was going to produce a thoughtful piece and thought it would be a positive experience.”

Still, Clark admits, everyone was a bit nervous about what the final piece would look like. While the episode will air nationally on May 15, Clark and more than 200 others community members, including educators and administrators from the Madison Metropolitan School District, physicians and healthcare professionals, and parents, gathered for an early screening in Madison. And were pleased with the results.

“What you see is genuine,” comments Clark. “There were no retakes or scripted elements.”

Film crews were at the clinic for three days, but always in the background. The clinic was one of roughly 52 different locations crews visited in the making of the four-part series.

Asked about his reaction to the film, Clark says, “The documentary really puts [the issue of obesity] out there. It’s not an optimistic film.”

According to Clark, if the current trends continue by 2044, all children in the U.S. will be overweight (defined as being in the 85th percentile for body-mass index – or BMI).

“That’s just staggering,” he comments. “It’s often said that this will be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.”

Clark cites studies that examine how the environment in which we live – our communities and neighborhoods – can affect our levels of physical activity. There’s research that demonstrates a relationship between the number of hours spent in front of a screen (TV, computer, or video game) and an increase in the rate of obesity. There are genetic factors, there are socio-economic factors, safety factors. In short, there is no one simple cause for the increase in obesity, no one to blame.

“It’s a very difficult issue,” Clark says. “It takes courage to admit there’s a problem. But, while parents play a huge role, they’re not alone. There’s really four critical pieces: the family, the schools, the community and the physicians.”

Despite the research and statistics, Clark is quick to point out that there is room for optimism about the future. But, it needs to be a team effort.

Fewer than 10 percent of families seek help for an obesity issue. Clark estimates in Dane County it’s even less – roughly two or three percent of families actually find help.

“Physicians are the first line – they can help identify the problem and help children and families start to think about solutions and find community resources, like the Pediatric Fitness Clinic” comments Clark. “Our goal at the clinic is to help not just the child, but the entire family to make healthy positive changes for life.”

Physicians can refer patients to the Pediatric Fitness Clinic, but families can also make appointments directly. In some cases, insurance will cover the appointments.

“The significance of the issue can’t be overstated,” concludes Clark. “It’s a health problem that affects the greatest number of Wisconsin youth. But, we’re here to help.”