Nibbling away at the obesity epidemic

We’ve been hearing about the epidemic of childhood obesity for more than a decade. Every few years a new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey comes out, showing us how many more of our children are tipping the scales toward long-term health problems. The most recent shocking figure is that one in three American children is overweight or obese.

First Lady Michelle Obama put that figure up front in two recent speeches. On January 20, it topped the list of dire statistics she recited to the U.S. Conference of Mayors; on January 28, the day after the President’s State of the Union address, she quoted it in a speech in Alexandria, VA. Her appearances came in advance of a national campaign against childhood obesity that the First Lady is rolling out this next month. But statistics played a small role in these first speeches. If her language is any indication, Michelle Obama will make this an unusually personal campaign — with direct, simple appeals to families and teachers and community leaders.

She framed the epidemic in personal terms by telling a story, one many parents can relate to: As a working mom, she often turned to easy solutions to feed her children — fast food, take-out, pizza. At a check-up, the family’s pediatrician referenced one of the obesity battle statistics, one that cut close to home. Black teenage girls had the highest rate of childhood obesity — 27.7% — in the most recent CDC surveys. The “wake-up call” from their family doctor, as the First Lady called it, touched off a number of changes in the Obama household.

Each of the changes Obama mentioned in her speech was, by itself, a small one. She instituted a family rule against watching TV during the week. She put more fruit and vegetables on the table. Gave her daughters water instead of sugared drinks for their lunch boxes. Made sure that the family spent more time outside, riding bikes, going to parks.

Simple doesn’t mean simplistic. Research supports the First Lady: Add up such small change, and it can be the difference between health and health problems, between activity and inactivity, between a healthy weight and obesity. Without saying it in so many words, Michelle Obama has acknowledged that alarming statistics alone haven’t been enough to motivate a positive change in our nation’s habits. And this issue cannot be addressed through a single, big solution. That is the message that Michelle Obama hopes to share with other American families in her campaign, that “small changes can lead to big results.”

Her campaign doesn’t officially roll out until next month, but it is expected to focus on increasing opportunities for physical activity and on supporting better nutrition in school and at home, and will rely on local governments, schools, and families to make those small changes happen.

In her January 20 speech to U.S. mayors, a key on-the-ground group in her campaign, Obama highlighted successful, common-sense initiatives from around the country: the mayor of Arlington, Texas, who is a physician, gave children pedometers to encourage them to walk during summer vacation; the mayor of Columbia, Mo., is building walkways and bikeways; in Bowling Green, Ky., the mayor launched a website that encouraged citizens to use local parks and even provided trail maps.

Specific initiatives and proposals will emerge as the campaign unfolds. But in the examples she chose to share with the nation’s mayors, I was struck by how many of the success stories have something to do with kids being outdoors.

I think she’s onto something.

Learn more

• Statistics on childhood obesity from the CDC.
• Reports on Michelle Obama's speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and in Alexandria, VA.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Labels: , ,