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COLUMN: Best way to fight obesity is to get kids moving

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 2:31 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 7, 2011

Obesity, particularly as it applies to children, is enjoying increased scrutiny along with copious advice and theories on how best to combat this growing malady. That it is a serious health hazard in addition to being a detriment to the ability to perform day-to-day tasks and to one’s self esteem has reached the ear of the White House.

The Surgeon General of the U.S. (Regina Benjamin) has tapped into the star power of first lady Michelle Obama to lead the campaign.  Introduced by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius as “everyone’s favorite vegetable gardener,” Obama addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors, calling obesity an epidemic that poses a great threat to America’s health and economy.

Pledging a hope her legacy will include a reduction in childhood obesity, she called for simple, common sense solutions and initiatives to enable children to be more active and provide schools and communities with access to healthier and more affordable nutritious food.  That this dilemma has orchestrated interest at the highest level is duly appreciated and it is almost certain that Michelle Obama will fare far better in media acclaim than former first lady Nancy Reagan did in the “Just say 'no'” campaign against drugs.

It should not surprise anyone that over 30 percent of children and adults are overweight or that government statistics place almost 20 percent of those between 6 and 19 years of age as obese. The idea of targeting the activities and eating habits of children as the primary solution to the problem has much merit inasmuch as ingrained habits are hard to break. When one is conditioned to viewing a fat body in the mirror from childhood, it is easier to ignore that reflection as an adult.

We are inundated with all manner of studies, overviews and recommendations as to the definition, causes and cures for obesity.  We no longer need to be told that obesity is defined as a body mass index of 20 to 30 percent higher than the ideal weight prescribed for that age nor that it is a product of too little exercise, poor eating habits or to be blamed on heredity. Obesity is easily visible to the naked eye and anyone who fails to understand that a life of watching TV and playing video games fortified with snacks, soft drinks and junk foods as basic food groups is beyond help.

Nor do we need to blame foods, high sugar drinks nor fault the community for failure to provide recreation as the villains. In reality, we need look no further than two of the "seven deadly sins" to identify the real culprits, e.g. gluttony and sloth. Eating less and increasing activity are the keys to success and the initial exercise is launched by an early pushing away from the table.

Admittedly, keeping reasonably fit is not as simple an undertaking as it was say, 50 years ago.  The easy access to multiple family automobiles, air conditioned farm machinery, yard tractors, powered hedge trimmers, weed whackers, lawn edgers and other labor saving devices have rendered chores much easier and less stressful to accomplish by Dad or Mom than to elicit the trouble of searching out and supervising the recalcitrant and hard to find teenager who was placed on Earth for precisely this type of activity.

Growing up, my brothers and I were the labor saving devices and generously deployed as such.  Granted, being reared on a farm was not conducive to a life of ease – there was never a need to invent “make work” projects to keep us busy, lean and mean.  And, for those youngsters raised in town, one rarely saw Dad or Mom mowing the yard, raking leaves, weeding or performing those many “character building tasks” so appropriate for teenagers. There were chores to be performed, actions that preceded fun and games or even dinner.

There is little to be gained by taxing or demonizing fast foods, fatty products or sugar heavy products. Not only is this counterproductive in that it attacks the symptom rather than the cause, it is doomed to failure as junk food is always available in one form or another.  While the support of the first lady, the surgeon general and other well intentioned groups are welcome, obesity is not a battle suited for the ham-fisted bureaucracy of government but one to be waged in family trenches.

Family level supervision is not that difficult. It does require that much of the food purchased include quantities of fruits and vegetables and also require some effort in preparation – packaged food products as a steady diet are a no-no.  But, the most important piece of the puzzle is exercise, a regular physical activity which includes assigned chores, walking, jogging, playing sports and dancing.  While coercing today’s cultural couch potatoes up onto their hind legs in pursuit of physical fitness will provoke howls of protest, the result will be healthier, happier young men and women.

Realizing this goal requires effort; however, if it was easy, it would have been completed last week. The secret to winning the war on obesity is not one learned from government – rather, it will be won by leadership setting the example.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.


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Comments

Ray Shapiro February 9, 2010 | 10:07 a.m.

Great article, Colonel Miller.
I find it discomforting to hear that our first lady is focusing on school cafeterias and doctors as the primary focus on childhood obesity. I would think that as mother of two, she would be addressing what parents can do instead of the role of government lunch programs and physicians.
(During the JFK years, gym was gym.)
Burning calories in the streets of New York City as a kid, playing stickball, stoopball, boxball, hit the penny, "off-the-wall," giant step, hopscotch, touch football, basketball, "skully," Johnny pump and other games long forgotten as well as walking to school with a nutritious low calorie brown bag lunch and returning to a decent home cooked meal, (where the family ate together at the dinner table), and then going back outside to play, helped maintain a thin waist way into my late 20's.
Today I have skinny fingers.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote February 9, 2010 | 11:59 a.m.

Many government policies actually exacerbate the problem, notably agriculture subsidies decrease the price for food grains and feed grains that are used to produce high caloric foods. A number of studies have demonstrated that eliminating all food subsidy programs would cause the price of certain foods, such as wheat and corn to increase, and the cost of other foods, such as soybeans, sugar canes and beets, fruits and vegetables, and beef to decrease. So with respect to farm policies I would like to see less government.

Another factor that contributes to the obesity problem is the media. Here I would like to see the "ham-fisted" government step in and regulate advertising to children. I don't think I've ever seen an advertisement targeting children to eat more green beans. Advertising is a powerful tool, and I don't think it should be employed to encourage children to eat unhealthy foods (or for any other reason).

Lastly, we need to redesign our city infrastructures to facilitate a more mobile society, i.e. less car centric. This would have numerous advantages in addition to lowering obesity rates. I think we should fundamentally change where our transportation dollars are spent. Moreover, we are a generation behind Europeans in other first world countries (and some second world countries!) with respect to our transportation infrastructure. I think the federal government in addition to state governments need to spend more money to drag our infrastructure into the 21st century. In the spirit of PayGo, I would cut military spending by half to pay for the infrastructure upgrades.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush February 9, 2010 | 12:02 p.m.

Corn is subsidized by the federal government. Cheap corn produces cheap calories after processing. Cheap calories don't have nutrition attached to them.
You can move your body all you want - if you don't have nutrition, or access to quality nutrition, none of your recommendations matter.
Why do you insist on defending those who poison our children? "Walk it off" is not a credible therapy for obesity. It may be a beginning.
The "good ol' days" argument is not legitimate. Nutritionists and physicians have legitimacy. They study.

(Report Comment)

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