Following the First Lady’s Lead

As a physician and a father, I’ve always looked for better ways to keep America’s children healthy and safe. First Lady Michelle Obama has a similar agenda – and I’m happy she’s in a position to do something about it.

Following the First Lady’s Lead
Following the First Lady’s Lead

As a physician and a father, I’ve always looked for better ways to keep America’s children healthy and safe. First Lady Michelle Obama has a similar agenda – and I’m happy she’s in a position to do something about it.

She appeared on today’s show to talk about her Let’s Move initiative, which she launched in February 2010. Let’s Move will help America’s kids become more physically active, provide healthier food in schools, and give parents the support they need to help keep their children fit and healthy. HealthCorps, the non-profit I launched with my wife Lisa, echoes these same core values, inspiring teens to make healthier choices for themselves and their families through peer mentoring and in-school and community programming.

Growing up in today’s world is vastly different from when the First Lady and I grew up. Our meal portions were smaller – but had more vegetables. The average soda size in the 1970s was 13.6 ounces. Now, many children can’t imagine drinking less than a 20-ounce soda. We had no videogames and computers, so we played outside and got more physical activity.

Now children eat more calories and exercise less. A study conducted by the National Institute on Media and Family revealed that children now spend more time in front of electronic screens (televisions, computers, etc.) than doing any other activity besides sleeping. As a result, the number of overweight and obese children has more than doubled in the past 25 years. It is considered an epidemic and a “public health crisis.”

Parents now have to make a stronger effort in order to keep children fit and healthy – or else. Obese children are more likely to grow up to be obese adults. Type II diabetes, once an adult disease, is now being seen in more and more children. Researchers have also noticed higher levels of poor health conditions among overweight children: insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and fatty liver disease. Multiple studies have also demonstrated that childhood obesity is associated with an impaired psychological well-being – increased rates of depression and lower levels of self-esteem.

In order to get kids moving and make healthier choices, the First Lady suggested the following on today’s show:

  • Ensure children engage in at least 60 minutes of active and vigorus play each day
  • Serve fruit or veggies with every meal
  • Substitute water or low-fat milk for sweetened beverages like soda or juice
  • Substitute healthier ingredients such as whole wheat pasta or lean meats in kids’ favorite recipes
  • Eat meals as a family.

As young parents, Lisa and I both agreed on what was important for our four kids. Over the years, we’ve encountered some resistance – but the older they get, the more they thank us. We limited their time in front of the TV. We’ve always encouraged them to get out of the house and exercise, or volunteer their time to better the community. When there’s a chance to work out with their old dad, I try to take them out running or to the tennis courts. It helps us kill two birds with one stone – fitness and quality family time.

However, because we have three daughters, Lisa and I have always encouraged maintaining a positive body image. While our children are getting larger and larger, the media has promoted a thinner and thinner ideal body image for women. Fifty-three percent of American 13-year-old girls are reportedly “unhappy with their bodies.” That number grows to 78% among 17-year-old girls. This pressure can lead to eating disorders and psychological issues. We suggest teaching adolescents how to avoid using others’ bodies to measure self-satisfaction, to focus on the body’s positive characteristics, and to focus on the physical activity one can accomplish instead of the number on the bathroom scale.

So as a parent, where do you start? A great place to start would be to read the CDC’s guidelines for assessing your child’s body mass index (BMI). Most experts consider children to be overweight if their BMI is greater than the 85th percentile, obese if in the 95th percentile.

If your child is in or near the obese or overweight category, talk to your child’s pediatrician, and visit the First Lady’s Let’s Move website for more tips on how to encourage your children to eat healthier and get more active. The new presidential guidelines for physical activity and fitness in schools, which the First Lady announced on our show today, are also provided here. And for a sample menu of White House-approved school lunches, click here.

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