Access to sports changed Connie Moore’s life.

A member of the 2004 Olympic team in track and field and a graduate of Chicago’s South Shore High School, Moore wasn’t initially interested in playing sports. But after prodding from members of the Chicago Park District, she finally got involved.

“They told me, ‘You can do this. It can take you places,'” she recalled.

But not all girls have access to after-school sports and healthy food, which translates to higher obesity rates.

While 26 percent of 9th- to 12th-grade girls are obese or overweight, the rate spikes to nearly 40 percent for black girls and 31 percent for Latina girls nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Although girls are most affected, it is not their fault,” said Amy Skeen, executive director of Girls in the Game, a nonprofit devoted to bringing sports to Chicago’s South and West sides.

To discuss the issues of obesity and access, Girls in the Game hosted a panel discussion two weeks ago, drawing park officials, school administrators, teachers and nonprofit leaders. The Thursday morning conference, titled “Stand Up for Girls,” focused specifically on obesity and its physical, psychological and emotional effects.

In an effort to bring sports and recreation to underserved communities, Girls in the Game runs sports programs, including soccer, tennis, volleyball and lacrosse, in parks and schools such as Washington Park, Hayes Park and Namaste Charter. A recent evaluation by Loyola University of Chicago showed increased activity and improved nutrition among the girls involved.

While increased physical activity reduces girls’ risk for high blood pressure, Type II diabetes and heart disease, it also improves their performance in school and their likelihood of attending college, according to Kathy Weber, a panelist and director of primary care and women’s sports medicine at Rush University Medical Center.

The higher rate of obesity in low-income communities is the side effect of limited access to healthy lifestyles, added Angela Odoms-Young, an assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“You can’t make good decisions in an environment that doesn’t support those decisions,” she said.

Low-income black and Latino communities have less access to supermarkets and fresh vegetables than their white and middle class counterparts, Odoms-Young added. Data shows that 50 percent are buying junk food daily at corner stores in their neighborhoods, she said.

Access to safe places to play after-school sports is also limited. While 85 percent of girls in suburban areas play sports, only 15 percent of girls in urban communities do so, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health.

At the morning’s panel, Moore told attendees that she credits her success to her early involvement in athletics. After high school graduation, she received a full scholarship to Penn State and went on to run track in the Olympics.

“Sports have evolved for me in a much grander way,” she said.