Registered nurse Theresa Conejo is an advocate with the American Heart Association’s You’re the Cure program. In this role, Theresa is dedicated to lobbying policymakers to pass legislation to help kids lead healthier lives. In her own community, she helped eliminate sugary drinks at an after-school program and launched a healthy kids’ camp.
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
As a cardiovascular nurse for 28 years, I have seen an increase in cardiovascular disease and stroke with the age of my patients getting younger and younger. It was when I became an American Heart/Stroke Association You’re the Cure Advocate that I really became aware of the statistics of childhood obesity.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
As an advocate for the American Heart Association, I was instrumental in getting sponsorship for a bill that was first introduced in 2007 called the Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids (FIT Kids) Act. The FIT Kids Act renews the emphasis on physical education, physical activity and nutrition in schools. The legislation would work to ensure kids are active during the school day and are given opportunities that promote overall health and wellness. The AHA recommends at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. The legislation would enable states to collect data on access to physical education and activity, including the amount of time spent in required physical education in relation to the recommended national standard. It would also ensure appropriate professional development for health and physical education teachers, support programs that help students understand, improve or maintain their physical well-being, promote equal physical activity opportunities for children with disabilities, and engage parents and guardians in efforts to support healthy lifestyles for their children. The bill was reintroduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) this past May, so I will do my best to talk with my elected officials about becoming a co-sponsor and the importance of this bill.
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
My success lies in teaching and helping families make better choices and live healthier lifestyles and encouraging businesses and politicians to make a difference. I was able to convince my local after school program to do away with sugar sweetened beverages and candy fundraisers and instead eat nutritious foods and sell flower bulbs. Through a grant I secured for the organization from Comcast, I was able to get a summer camp going that included a teaching garden and playground for increased physical playtime. We had a nutritionist come and teach the students and moms how to prepare healthy, delicious snacks, and a Zumba instructor taught the kids how to shake it up. The highlight of the program was a trip to a working Amish farm in Lancaster, Pa.
Who is your role model in your work?
Most certainly First Lady Michelle Obama for her work in creating the awareness about childhood obesity through her Let’s Move! program. But recently, I had the privilege to meet and listen to San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro at the 4th Annual Salud America Summit. Based at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Salud America is a national network of stakeholders seeking environmental and policy solutions to Latino obesity. I was inspired by the work Mayor Castro has done to make his city healthier. For example, he has set goals to reduce childhood obesity by 50 percent and adult obesity by 25 percent by 2020. He also is aiming to increase the number of walkable neighborhoods by 20 percent. One of the several ways the city will approach the goal of healthier children is to establish an Active Living Council of San Antonio targeting physical activity in the city. On the nutrition side, the city will work with schools, churches, restaurants, stores and community centers to emphasize better food choices and activities. The goal, Castro said, is to change San Antonio’s consciousness about fitness. He described a community in which runners, walkers and cyclists are an integral part of the city fabric.
What game or sport did you play growing up?
When I was younger we played outdoors, rode bikes and roller skated. I loved to roller skate outdoors and indoors. I spent many a Friday night at the roller rink. I still skate now and then, but I am not as flexible as in my younger days.
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