More than 50 years ago, the White House was on a physical fitness mission, with President Kennedy determined to whip the nation into shape. A healthy nation is a more productive one, better able to defend itself and others, and Kennedy’s fitness program, especially that in schools, was recognition of how important physical activity and a healthful diet are not just to individual health, but that of the country as a whole.
It’s pretty disheartening, then, that we still faced the same problem, much worsened, when Michelle Obama became first lady. What made Obama’s task harder was the emotionally-loaded nature of the obesity problem, as well as the power of commercial interests more focused on making money from junk food than keeping kids healthy. No one wants to call a child fat; it’s unkind and judgmental and tests the already-fragile self-esteem of young people. But it’s a worse insult to let children develop diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses that will hinder (and shorten) their entire lives. And soda manufacturers and fast-food companies don’t like it when the public is told the truth about how bad the food is for people’s bodies. Everything in moderation, they insist, turning the health crisis into a matter of personal freedom. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is that sugary sodas and junk food are not moderately consumed in the U.S. at all.
So it was especially brave of Mrs. Obama to take on childhood obesity as her first-lady cause. She caught a lot of flack for supposedly telling children they’re too fat (she didn’t) and for not choosing something directed at the condition of African-Americans. But recent data shows that Michelle Obama has been successful, or at least has likely contributed to success in combating obesity. In the last decade, recently released federal statistics show, the obesity rate among young children has dropped by 43 percent.
Is it all due to Obama’s “Let’s Move” program encouraging exercise and healthful eating? No, but it surely had an impact. And it certainly has helped change the national mindset. Notably, the program has turned out to be particularly good for African-American children, who have higher statistical rates of obesity. It may not be a pure civil rights issue, but it’s one way of empowering the next generation of African-American leaders.
Technology and money have made us soft. Decades ago, children were told to “go out and play,” and typically would return home for a non-fast-food dinner after (quite literally) running around the neighborhood. Now, kids have “play dates” and travel soccer, but aren’t integrating exercise into their day-to-day movements. They’re driven to their softball games and to school, and often retreat to their iPads and video games when they get home. And at school, physical fitness classes have been pushed aside, as schools try to save cash and to focus on the No Child Left Behind-evaluated topics that could determine if the school stays open. Poor math scores could get a school declared “failing” under the law. Having classrooms full of obese children won’t affect the institutions’ standings.
Adults, of course, are in the same pattern, sitting behind desks all day, racing to the gym after work, then coming home and monitoring emails from the office. We’ve compartmentalized exercise and turned to junk food and fast food because it’s easier. But it’s making for a dangerously ill nation, one which suffers not only higher health care costs but a national security threat, as the military is faced with recruits too out-of-shape to serve.
Michelle Obama ignored the criticism of
her “Let’s Move” program and pushed ahead with a program that ultimately has a
more far-reaching impact than any academic testing requirements or school
rankings. It may have taken more than a half century, but she is finally
achieving what President Kennedy started.