Written by: Wallace Merriman

Childhood Obesity: Why Focusing on Exercise is NOT the Answer
Posted on:Jan 18, 2012

In December, Washington DC, First Lady Michelle Obama gave an inspirational talk to almost 1000 stakeholders in the future of America’s Health. At the first ever meeting of the Partnership for a Healthier America, Obama shared some of her early fears that her initiative to eradicate childhood obesity within a generation would not be successful.

But yesterday she was confident and exuberant as more and more groups have announced their support and definitive actions to tackle the problem. For example, the YMCA, serving 700 thousand children daily across the nation, is planning to switch from juice to water, serving fruits and veggies instead of cookies as snacks, and limiting screen time for young children so they can be more physically active. More info on that in the Y’s press release.

What surprised us in the First Lady’s keynote was the exclusive focus on physical activity as the means to reduce childhood obesity. After a minute or two spent talking about commitments by supermarkets to open up shop in food deserts, and one sentence about sugar and sodium reduction in some products, Mrs. Obama spent the rest of her 30 minutes speaking about making exercise fun, getting kids to play by moving their bodies instead of just their thumbs. While we certainly agree that making exercise and physical activity fun and safe in order to encourage a less sedentary lifestyle, this is NOT THE MAIN ISSUE.

In 60 minutes of physical activity during an organized sport event, a child under 10 years of age exerts about 100 calories. But the intake of calories from a single soft drink or snack cancels out those burnt calories, usually during or right after the event (See more from an angry soccer mom here).  What happens the rest of the day, when that child consumes other snacks and nutrition void foods? What about the hundreds of times a day she is bombarded with junk food marketing messages on TV and in online websites for kids?

You have to hand it to Michelle Obama for choosing childhood obesity as her crusade. But it seems that she has realized the limits of her power to change the behavior of companies that manufacture sugary beverages, sugar laden cereals, and other kiddie delights.

It’s much easier to get everyone to rally around MORE of something (in this case exercise) than convincing corporations to forfeit revenue streams by selling LESS junk food.

Until we realize this simple truth, childhood obesity will not disappear.


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