04/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Health Case for Middle Schools

Last month, I began visiting middle schools in New York City and the surrounding counties to speak about my 6-week wellness initiative, Healthy Steps to Albany: First Lady's Challenge. In anticipation of the competition, which kicks off on March 1, I have met with 6th, 7th and 8th grade classes to explain how the Challenge works and to encourage them to participate.

After completing rounds of jumping jacks and snacking on New York State apples, I opened the floor to questions and after many visits came to expect one in particular. The teachers, parents, principals, reporters - and even the kids themselves - wanted to know why I chose to focus on middle school students?

To keep my answer from sounding too much like a lecture, I shared a story about my own adolescence and the inspiration for the Healthy Steps program. My middle school years were like anyone else's. I suffered from the emotional and physical uncertainty of growing up. In need of an outlet, I took up running and soon realized the connection between my daily physical activity and my emotional well being. I felt more confident, I felt more relaxed and most importantly, I felt like myself.

In the 33 years since I completed my first mile, I remain a runner and know how important the lifestyle I developed then has been in sustaining me through adulthood. This is the lesson we need to impart on our kids, as they form the habits that will carry them through the next phases of their life.

Pre-teen and teenage years are critical in the development of obesity. Children who are obese between 10 and 17 years of age are about 20 times as likely to remain obese into young adulthood compared to their non-obese counterparts. In girls, the decline in physical activity during these years plays an important role.

Inactive and obese adolescents risk multiple consequences including reduced bone strength, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol levels and asthma. If addressed at an early age, many of these conditions can be avoided.

Kids in middle school are starting to take control of their own lives. They are choosing their own friends and deciding how to spend their free time. The Healthy Steps program works well with their newfound independence as it gives them choices. They can actively choose between fast food and fruit or watching TV vs. taking a walk with friends.

The middle school years are rife with anxiety, physical changes, and new challenges. From my own experience growing up, and that as a mother, it seems the perfect time period to introduce and reinforce concepts of healthy living. Kids at this age are poised an able to discuss and educate themselves about healthy eating and exercise. But furthermore, they are at a point in their lives where the right influences and guidance can help them form healthy habits that work for them and can serve them for a lifetime.