Childhood Obesity: Why Focusing on Exercise is NOT the Answer

Yesterday in 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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  • Kate Heuchera

    I have to somewhat disagree with you here.  I’m in my forties.  When I was a kid, even the most sedentary kids were doing some walking or biking on a regular basis.  I did tons of walking and or biking as a get myself to school…to get myself to a friend’s house etc.   Then kids were expected to shovel snow, rake leaves, and mow the lawn.  Do some kids do these things today…yes, but not to the same degree as they did then.

    I don’t think there has ever been a time in human history where kids have been less active…I don’t know how we can discount that.  It goes beyond just organized activity…we get much less activity in our daily lives.

    • jnwalsh1

      I’m in my forties as well and I agree that we had more active lifestyles as kids.  I can only speak for my own upbringing, but we did not partake in junk food (which, in my recollection, really boomed in the 70s and 80s — PopTarts, brightly colored sugar coated cereals, all kinds of trashy candy like pixy stix and Jolly Ranchers; it was the advent of SnackWells…I worked in a big drug/department store in high school and every week it seemed there was a new brand of cookies or a new candy bar on the market).  My parents rarely bought anything of the kind; I and most of my friends and acquaintances, were fortunate to be fed real food, home-cooked meals, even garden-grown vegetables most of the time (it was a neighborhood of first- and second-generation Italian immigrants so you can bet your bottom dollar there was no Wonder Bread or Little Debbie in the kitchens).  It was also a city neighborhood so a lot of walking for everyone…parking was difficult so it was easier to walk three or four blocks to the library or the dry cleaner or the post office or the dentist’s office rather than drive and try to find a spot.   But unfortunately, a short walk does not counteract the ill effects of the chemical-laden, sugar and sugar-substitute heavy, artificially flavored processed Lunchables…not to mention that kids’ portions today are much larger and eaten much more mindlessly — if I got home from school, my mother might give me TWO home made cookies.  It is not out of the ordinary today for my kids to visit a friend’s home and be handed the entire package of Oreos and told to take it with them while they go do homework or play.    One important lesson I’ve learned in my adult journey to eat right and make health a priority is that “no work out can out-work a bad diet” — i.e., your body can only use what you give it, and foods that don’t contribute anything nutritionally detract from achieving optimal health.  Your body is never going to run as well on a diet of soda, snack foods and KFC as it is on a diet of lean protein, fruits and vegetables…even if you exercised on the junk food regimen and didn’t exercise on the whole food regimen.  I don’t think kids’ sports are the answer (I think there was something on Fooducate recently about the ridiculous tradition of “snack” at games/practices and why were we “rewarding” kids for completing a 45-minute soccer practice – 20 minutes of which were spent goofing off or listening to an instructor; 25 minutes of actual activity — with crap like juice boxes and fruit gushers that not only negate any positive effects of the activity but contribute empty calories, rot teeth and reinforce the concept of food = reward) but doing more everyday activities, exercising as a family (hiking, biking, etc.) and leading by example (mom lying on the couch watching a soap yelling at the kids to get outside and play really doesn’t work) are some of the starting points.

      • Kate Heuchera

        In response to your remark that kids’ sports aren’t the answer…no they are not for everyone.  I think some sports where kids are very young, it can be problematic that kids are receiving snacks.    I don’t think it is representative of every program though.  My son was in an elementary school football program where the kids worked very hard, and there was no food at all involved until the very last game.

        Not every kid really likes sports, so obviously they need to find other ways to be active.  

        For kids that do like sports though you can’t really discount the effect they have on maintaining a healthy weight.

        I’m probably a more sedentary person by nature but I had no choice to walk and bike as a kid.  Despite my sedentary nature I found myself almost by accident in competitive swimming which I did for several years.  You burn a huge amount of calories if you are in the pool for several hours daily.  Male swimmers burn almost ridiculous amounts of calories.  I’m not saying everyone should run out and become a swimmer, but I’m surprised that people are minimizing the contribution that exercise makes for those who are active vs. those who are not.

  • Kate Heuchera

    Even if a kid is drinking that sugary soda, but participating in sports…he is still ahead of the game compared to kids that are not participating in sports, but still drinking that sugary soda.

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  • Bettina at The Lunch Tray

    Excellent post, Hemi.  My response to it on today’s Lunch Tray is here:

    • Perrymonaco

      I am curious.  I am by no means agreeing with all the additives and preservatives in foods.  However, we have such a large population we would not be able to sustain a food supply that can feed everyone (organic/free range).  Just would like to know your thoughts on this?  I spend a great deal of my time feeding families in shelters and homeless and if it were not for “mass” produced foods we would be hard pressed to feed anyone.  The main reason being cost and lack of funding into these programs from the Federal Government.  Who, by the way, just cut a majority of my clients food stamps by 1/3. If you can afford organic and free range then that should be a choice you make. It is not a choice for everyone.  

  • Superstarra

    Exercise is a start. Battling the FDA and food corporations seems like it would be an impossible task, doesn’t it? She’s been trying but having the opposition yell about the government regulating food parents serve their kid isn’t helping either. I think that taking the high road and advocating exercise is something everyone can encourage and no one can argue with. And that’s at least something rather than Nothing.

  • Callie

    Exercise is a start. Stopping Monsanto is a huge issue and dealing with the corn lobby another. Sugar is not sugar.. we have food that come in boxes that if you actually ate the box it would be more healthy for our children. Here is a solution. Lets eat free range as much as possible, meat as little as possible and no foods that come from a box, tin, or prepared. Whole healthy foods. Insurance would go down, weight would go down and people would be healthier. Our government lobbies for garbage to be in our food and water then contradicts themselves with healthy eating by chef boyardee.

  • Tarnita77

    Your headline is flawed. Exercise may not be the “ONLY” answer, but is one of many solutions that will help eradicate childhood obesity. While exercising may not calorie-for-calorie help kids lose or maintain weight, it improves their lifestyles in so many other ways. As I’m sure you know, exercise has many more benefits than weight loss. Exercise is also something child may choose to do independently, whereas they may not have much choice over the foods they eat, as they must eat what their parents, schools, etc. give them. Their playtime allows them more choices – we as adults can encourage them to be active during playtime, and they can choose to run or dance around as opposed to just sitting. They can learn to enjoy the benefits of physical activity at a young age, which will help them incorporate it throughout life.

    • Fooducate

      Not disagreeing with the benefits of physical activity. But if 99% of the energy is focused on this and only 1% on food (which is what happened in yesterday’s talk by the first lady), we won’t achieve much in the fight against childhood obesity.

      • Anonymous

        Didn’t the First Lady push to get a veg garden (possibly grown using organic methods) started at the White House?  I seem to remember seeing a few news articles to that effect in 2009.  I think she’s well aware of & has publicized the beneficial
        qualities of fresh produce as an important element of childhood health.  If she’s choosing to focus on physical activity at this time, I don’t see it as negating her earlier efforts.  Both are important factors, as is access to preventive health & dental care. 

        Hard to bite into & chew those apples if your teeth hurt from cavities!   (and kids who eat well may still get cavities).

  • Ken Leebow

    On this subject, I’m not waiting around for government assistance. From Experience Life, I recommend reading: A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-up World

  • JM

    Exactly. Mrs. Obama is championing a health initiative that is not evidence-based and thus doomed to fail.

    • Gerome

      I’m sorry, that is simply wrong. For the research you quoted: “In our study we can see evidence that physical activity is predictive of a change in fatness…” Denying physical activity’s role in weight would be the argument “doomed to fail”.

  • Carolyn

    I am with you 100%.  I don’t believe exercise is the answer to this huge problem (I am addicted to exercise and my kids are active, but I still believe food is the issue.  Studies say that kids compensate — if they exercise at school, they cut back after school; other studies point to people immediately consuming the same calories they have burned due to increased hunger after exertion).  The problem is that we sell thousands of calories per day more than our needs.  No provider of these excess calories wants to go without those sales. Food is cheap (the bad stuff) and everywhere.  We cannot seem to go to a meeting or a Little League game or any sort of gathering without there being food.  It’s a source of entertainment and comfort.  We are using food in too many ways other than its real purpose as fuel.  And I am using the term loosely — whole food is tough to abuse.  Scientifically-concocted processed food is like a drug, and we are a nation of addicts.  Exercise is nice, but few can work out the 90 minutes a day needed to maintain weight through the middle age years, and, I think Mrs. Obama will find, trying to increase exercise among our youth might confer some benefits, but not the one she is hoping for.

  • Dr Bill Dean

    Michelle Obama is telling writers such as yourself to wake up to the new nutritional paradigm The Western molecular or matter science approach to nutrition is incomplete so comments like yours shows an inadequate comprehension of the problem of obesity particularly in children  Until this matter science nutritional approach is married to the energy science nutrtional approach all bets are off that any headway will be made in our efforts to change to deteriorating picture of obesity not only in children but in adults as well  See for some elucidatiion   Dr Bill Dean

  • Guest

    Oh Fooducate…

    The campaign is called “Let’s Move”, not “Let’s Shut Down ConAgra-Monsanto-DeKalb-(inert EVIL corporation here)”.

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  • CT

    I agree with previous posters… the headline is flawed.  There are many factors that play a role in this epidemic.  And many factors will play a role in reversing these trends. 

    NOTHING (no one thing) is THE answer to childhood obesity. but Focusing on Exercise certainly is AN answer. 

  • Gerome

    I’m baffled at the position here that the Partnership’s focus is almost exclusively on physical activity. According to their web site, they have a broad and balanced agenda, and as a part of the Let’s Move, they complement that agenda which focuses on BOTH proper nutrition and physical activity.

    I would also challenge the one hour of activity = 100 calories burned. Baylor College of Medicine puts that one hour at 500 calories: That child needs about 1500 Kcal/day, so burning 500 calories is substantial.

    I would also suggest that a kid who is active for that hour has a higher resting metabolism.

    I fully agree that there has to be emphasis on both calorie intake and on physical activity. But I do not see any reason to browbeat the First Lady for championing a cause. She is focused on physical activity. Nancy Reagan just said “no”. Roslyn Carter championed mental health advocacy, Laura Bush, literacy. None of these people solved the world’s problems.

    Most of the issues surrounding problems with the food supply are related to legislation and regulation, and that is, has been, probably always will be outside the domain of the private citizen married to the Executive Branch of the government.

    Mrs. Obama is doing a fantastic job as an advocate for getting kids moving. She should not be criticized for not taking on the entire agenda.

  • Suedalonzo

    I think the food lobbyists and the food industry itself are the real culprits.

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