A recent analysis of obesity in the U.S. says that if Arizonans don't change their ways, nearly two-thirds of us will be obese by 2030.

Driving that expansion of our collective waistline is the habits and lifestyles of youths.

Trying to address the tolls of childhood obesity, former Olympian LaTanya Sheffield will host a free sports event for Tucson kids next Saturday.

Olympians Brigetta Barrett, Georganne Moline, Will Claye, Carla Garrett and Lynda Tolbert-Goode will all meet with local youngsters. Sheffield expects at least 500 kids will attend. Though the event is free, registration is required so that Sheffield knows how many healthy lunches are needed.

Sheffield first noticed a wave of unhealthy children about 15 years ago when she began holding track and field clinics for Tucson kids. She was immediately surprised by how many children were overweight and lacked physical conditioning.

"After much research on demographics and ages and particulars, we realized we had really stumbled onto something," said Sheffield. "We realized we needed to be a far-reaching resource."

The focus of her work then expanded. Sheffield, a hurdler in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, created a nonprofit organization with a broader aim: motivating kids to have healthy lifestyles.

The organization, Sports Extravaganza, hosts events featuring Olympic athletes who meet kids and ideally motivate them to see the benefits of competitive sports. Sheffield gets assistance from other Olympic athletes and is particularly interested in reaching children from low-income families and communities.

"Technology has replaced a more active lifestyle for kids," Sheffield said. "Instead of playing outside until dusk they are playing with their thumbs on a computer."

But the lure of technology is not the only problem, Sheffield said. Many kids are being raised in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to play outside. Combine that with a "microwave society" where people are eating quickly but not necessarily healthfully, and kids are going to be affected, she said.

Sheffield, a former Tucson resident, is now coaching at Cal State Long Beach. She regularly comes back to Tucson for Sports Extravaganza events.

By introducing kids to Olympians, Sheffield believes they'll be exposed to the kinds of role models that inspired her to become a world-class athlete.

"There were athletes around me and that got my attention," Sheffield said. "We are just here to inspire kids today, in 2013."

In 1980, 5 percent of American teens ages 12 to 19 were obese. That rate climbed to 17 percent (about 12.5 million children and teens) by 2010.

The 2012 "F as in Fat" report, completed by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, says that in 2007, nearly 31 percent of Arizona children ages 10 through 17 were overweight or obese. If obesity rates continue at the current trajectory, nearly 60 percent of Arizona adults will be obese by 2030, the report forecasts.

U.S. census data lists Tucson as the sixth-poorest metropolitan area in the country, which may put local kids at higher risk for obesity. A recent study out of Baylor and Texas A&M universities says that obesity and diabetes affect impoverished communities, including border communities, at higher rates than the general U.S. population.

While physical activity has been shown to reduce the risks for chronic health problems, "few Mexican-American and lower-income Americans, including children, engage in physical activity that bring about health benefits," the study says.

On StarNet: Read the Star's special report, "Poverty, obesity entwined," at azstarnet.com/obesity

How to sign up

Former Olympians, including London 2012 silver medal-winning high jumper Brigetta Barrett, will be in Tucson from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 2, for a free event geared toward local youths.

The event will be held at Flowing Wells High School, 3725 N. Flowing Wells Road.

Kids ages 5 to 18 are invited to register for Sports Extravaganza at www.sportsx.org or by calling 465-8679.

Healthy lunches will be served and kids will receive free T-shirts, Nike backpacks and water bottles.

The registration deadline is Monday.

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.