By IAN HICKS, For The Times Leader
WHEELING - Today's teens and young adults have grown up in an age when technology, hectic schedules and convenience foods loaded with calories constantly within reach have pushed maintaining a healthy lifestyle to the back burner for some.
But despite all those outside influences, local health experts say the decision to make one's health a priority must come from within. And while some young people are taking ownership of that responsibility, it seems to be a decision some are reluctant to make these days.
College student George Culler works out at Centre Town Fitness in Wheeling. While some young people remain health conscious, physical activity just doesn’t seem to be a priority for many youth.
Dr. Amy Jean, a pediatric endocrinologist at Wheeling Hospital, specializes in the treatment of children with both juvenile and adult-onset diabetes, and her prior research has focused on the prevention and treatment of obesity. She said while her younger patients are more teachable, teenagers' poor health habits often prove difficult to break.
"If they are not personally motivated ... nothing will happen," Jean said. "I have to wait until they're ready to make that change."
George Frazier, manager of Centre Town Fitness in downtown Wheeling, believes societal pressures and a decreased emphasis on teaching physical education in schools are partially to blame.
"With all the communication tools that are out there today, worrying about their social lives and social connections, and they're not investing themselves in their future health. ... A lot of people feel like when they're young they're not at risk, and that's unfortunate," said Frazier.
Frazier said those who fail to develop the desire to stay physically fit when they're young are far less likely to turn things around as they age. And the further one slips into obesity, the more intimidating it becomes to begin a fitness program.
The "rule of thumb," Frazier said, is setting aside 45 minutes to an hour for exercise an average of three to five days per week.
With an extensive trail system and several indoor and outdoor swimming pools, he added that Ohio Valley residents have plenty of opportunity to stay active without spending a lot of money.
"You don't have to belong to a gym to get good physical activity," he said.
From a dietary standpoint, Jean said the increasing number of single-parent families as well as households where both parents work have driven society toward quick and easy meals that often lack nutritional value.
And while schools have taken steps to influence child nutrition, including removing soft drink vending machines, she doesn't see a noticeable change in behavior among teens as a result.
She said many of the children she sees don't wake up early enough to eat a good breakfast, then choose not to eat school lunch and instead meet up with their friends for fast food after classes are over.
"They eat a huge amount of fat calories and sugar calories right after school," she said.
Jean agrees with Frazier that the local area offers numerous ways to remain active, including many that weren't around when she grew up here 20 years ago - it's just a matter of people choosing to take advantage of them.
"We have a long way to go," Jean said.