Michelle Obama, First Lady since January 2009, has been making the most of her time in office. Beginning with conversations on a White House lawn, she launched the Let’s Move campaign, taking on the mission of ending childhood obesity in America within a generation. Achieving all children reaching adulthood with a normal weight, which is not a modest goal, will require continuous and comprehensive action by all sectors of society. To that end, Let’s Move reaches out to parents, children, elected officials, schools, community leaders and healthcare providers – all branches of society – to ensure everyone does their part.
Educating about Childhood Obesity
Before someone is motivated to act, they must understand that there is a reason for doing so. The first way Mrs. Obama’s campaign addresses apathy is simply to educate the public about the desperate place we find ourselves in. Consider these startling statistics:
Over the past 30 years, the number of obese children in the United States has tripled, so that today 1 in 3 children are overweight (too heavy for height) or obese (too much body fat for height), and in fact 1 in 3 Americans. It is estimated that Americans today consume almost a third more calories than per day than in 1960, including alarming amounts of fat and sugar. Such a drastic change cannot help but harm the body. The risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, asthma, and many other conditions is known to increase with obesity.
We can no longer pretend that this is an individual problem. With an epidemic of obesity among our children, we must all take responsibility for creating a healthier environment. But instead of feeling overwhelmed by that responsibility, the Let’s Move campaign presents clear, achievable steps to make a healthy future possible.
Start Eating Healthy
After educating about the problem, the Let’s Move campaign educates the public about the solution. The first step to a healthier lifestyle is figuring out how to eat right. The disturbing trends of the last few decades stem from radical differences in how we eat and what we eat. Not only are portion sizes out of control, but people are often unaware of the quality (or poor quality) of the food they eat. In short, people don’t know what is good for them. And if adults are not informed, children are less so. However, information is now more widely available than ever before and it is the responsibility of parents and caregivers to educate themselves and pass that information on to the next generation.
The Food and Drug Administration, the government agency that regulates the food industry, requires most distributors of prepared foods (canned, boxed, bagged) to label their products with the Nutrition Facts label that lists serving size, caloric content, and a host of other information. In 2009, Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg announced some new initiatives for the FDA, including sending warning letters to companies that misrepresent their products and working with the food industry to introduce front-of-package labeling that will make it even easier for consumers to make healthy choices.
While labels help families to be more informed about the food they eat at home, the fact is that most people eat a large percentage of their food outside the home. Whether it’s from restaurants, schools, sandwich shops, or vending machines, many foods don’t come packaged with reliable information. But that is no longer an excuse. The US Department of Agriculture website provides clear and comprehensive information on the new Food Pyramid (updated from the old grains-on-the-bottom model that adults may be familiar with), which outlines the components of a day of balanced meals. Unlike the previous version, Food Pyramid 2.0 includes the importance of exercise and shares the servings per day for each food category. That website and hundreds of others that provide quality food information put healthy choices within the reach of all Americans.
In addition to educating children and families on how to eat well, the Let’s Move campaign aims to make a tangible difference by helping schools lead the way. With tight school budgets across the country, more and more junk food has made its way into the public school system and into the bodies of our children, often because it’s cheap, convenient, and long-lasting. However, when the long-term costs of obesity (higher health care costs) are factored in, cutting corners during childhood is no longer a viable option. School administrators and parents need to get involved and change options in schools so that children can learn better while in school and live better while out.
Get people activated
In addition to learning what to put in our bodies, Americans need to learn how to use their bodies to keep them in top shape. The USDA states that children and adolescents should get 60 minutes of physical activity a day, while adults should get at least 30 minutes on a regular basis. Most Americans don’t measure up to those standards, and to some, they seem unachievable. However, getting a lot of exercise in a day is just a matter of priorities. The average American child (8-18) spends 7.5 hours EVERY DAY on entertainment media. The Let’s Move campaign means changing that by activating families, schools and communities.
Every family’s schedule and lifestyle is different, so incorporating more activity will look different for everyone. For a family it may be deciding to walk anywhere that is less than a mile from home; for another, it might be a family tradition four-seater in the driveway. Opportunities to be active can become fun and foster family togetherness. Do morning jumping jacks in your pajamas, dance in the kitchen to your favorite songs, go biking to the park, or see who can swing the highest on the swings. Kids love to be active, and they love it even more if they get to spend quality time with their parents. But even if you can’t get your child away from a screen, entertainment media has plenty of active options, too. Nintendo’s Wii Fit, or the popular Dance Dance Revolution, or even simple YouTube videos like Exercise with Daniel can get kids up and moving without even knowing it.
Of course, many of children’s days are spent at school, so schools are also responsible for incorporating movement into the schedule, as well as educating students about its importance. Making physical education a priority, allowing recess time, extending and supporting extracurricular sports, and even incorporating physical activity into the academic curriculum are all ways schools can help students be healthier. Every day there is more research that establishes the benefit of movement in learning: a healthy body makes a healthy brain.
Communities can encourage citizens to lead healthy lives by building infrastructure that supports them. Bike trails, parks, safe routes to and from schools, activity centers, and youth programs make exercise convenient and engaging. Initiatives that make team membership cheaper, offer scholarships for athletic participation, or educate disadvantaged students about opportunities in the area can have a positive impact on children’s lives.
Help people take action
Because change can be overwhelming, Let’s Move has outlined “5 Simple Steps to Success” for every group it seeks to educate: parents, children, elected officials, schools, community leaders, healthcare providers, and even chefs.
For example, the five steps for chefs are as follows:
1) Join the Chefs Move to Schools initiative. This step encourages chefs to “adopt” a school and work within it to educate students, families, and administrators about nutritious options and exciting new foods. The Let’s Move website helps chefs find schools (and chefs of schools) with an interactive searchable map.
2) Take the HealthierUS School Challenge. Once a school has been adopted, chefs can help schools apply to be a Healthier US School Challenge (HUSCC) by meeting various criteria. The USDA: Food and Nutrition Services site describes the incentives offered to schools that qualify.
3) Find out about child nutrition programs. To be effective in adopting a school, chefs can learn about current child nutrition programs and assess what can be improved.
4) Preparation for the classroom. When joining a school, a chef should ask good questions about what the school’s goals are and what its current output is. Where come the food from? What kind of equipment does the kitchen have? Does the menu need an overhaul?
5) Find recipes for success. Recipes for Success are innovative ideas that have worked well. Whether a chef gets them from somewhere else or invents them himself, sharing ideas across the country can only help us build healthier schools faster.
bringing people together
Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign sounds like an amazing idea. But that’s all it will be if Americans don’t take it personally and seriously. To ensure it becomes a movement and not just a slogan, there are clear ways to get involved. In addition to following the action steps on the Action Steps page, all citizens are invited to make the Let’s Move pledge and receive email updates, join regional Let’s Move Meetups to plan activities and strategize locally, and join the Partnership for a Healthier America, which focuses on mobilizing leadership across sectors to lead the way to health. Anyone can join the conversation on Facebook, too
The Let’s Move campaign is a call to action against childhood obesity that cannot be ignored. In the words of the promise,
“We believe that all children have the right to a healthy childhood. We cannot allow this to be the first generation in our history to grow up less healthy than their parents. The ingredients… better food + more activity… are clear. Let’s Move is not just noble, it’s a necessity. It’s not just a slogan, it’s our responsibility.”