Battle against obesity gains momentum with new, massive national physical activity programs

With America’s obesity epidemic only growing worse, the U.S. government and the private sector have launched sweeping programs to encourage people to be more physically fit.
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Talk concerning America’s obesity epidemic has swelled in recent years, with the CDC reporting that obesity rates in 49 states exceed 20 percent. But this year, the U.S. government is working with organizations and businesses in the private sector to push massive campaigns to trim the waistlines of Americans.

In February 2009, President Obama set up the Task Force on Childhood Obesity, and First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move program to encourage kids to be physically fit and eat healthy foods. Then, in May, the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity rolled out the country’s first National Physical Activity Plan, a program in which private sector entities and public institutions will partner over several years to increase physical activity among the U.S. population.

“I believe we are reaching a 'tipping point' in our fight against obesity, especially childhood obesity. We can no longer afford the human and financial losses experienced by this epidemic,” said Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, which is spearheading the fight against childhood obesity. 

The childhood obesity campaign and Physical Activity Plan involve vast numbers of government departments and private organizations, marking an unprecedented effort to tackle our country’s weight problem. As these programs gain momentum in the coming months, the buzz concerning obesity and physical fitness could grow louder, and companies in the fitness and outdoor industries will find opportunities to weigh in.

Unprecedented action

While there has been plenty of talk over the years about ways to deal with our country’s weight problems, the Let’s Move campaign and the Physical Activity Plan signal that the U.S. government and the private sector are moving with a greater sense of urgency to really make a difference.

This summer, the Task Force on Childhood Obesity published an action plan that involves schools, U.S. businesses and the departments of Education, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Transportation, as well as the Federal Trade Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.

There has never before been such a comprehensive attempt to address obesity in the U.S., Pfohl told SNEWS.

“What makes the Childhood Obesity Task Force report different is that it may be the first time that all government agencies that have a stake in the childhood obesity issue have come together to share programs, ideas and solutions,” said Pfohl.

According to a White House statement, the Obesity Task Force plan aims to achieve the following:

1. Getting children a healthy start on life, with good prenatal care for their parents; support for breastfeeding; and quality child care settings with nutritious food and ample opportunity for young children to be physically active.

2. Empowering parents and caregivers with simpler, more actionable messages about nutritional choices based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans; improved labels on food and menus that provide clear information to help make healthy choices for children; reduced marketing of unhealthy products to children; and improved health care services, including BMI measurement for all children.

3. Providing healthy food in schools, through improvements in federally supported school lunches and breakfasts; upgrading the nutritional quality of other foods sold in schools; and improving nutrition education and the overall school environment.

4. Improving access to healthy, affordable food by eliminating “food deserts” in urban and rural America; lowering the relative prices of healthier foods; developing or reformulating food products to be healthier; and reducing the incidence of hunger, which has been linked to obesity.

5. Getting children more physically active through quality physical education, recess and other opportunities in and after school; addressing aspects of the “built environment” that make it difficult for children to walk or bike safely in their communities; and improving access to safe parks, playgrounds, and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities.

Let’s Move campaign

To support the Obesity Task Force plan. First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move campaign (www.letsmove.gov) in February. It engages every part of society affecting physical activity and nutrition, including schools, government health organizations, food manufacturers and even public-lands caretakers, such as the National Park Service.

“For the first time, the nation will have goals, benchmarks and measurable outcomes that will help us tackle the childhood obesity epidemic one child, one family and one community at a time,” Obama said in a statement. “We want to marshal every resource -- public and private sector, mayors and governors, parents and educators, business owners and health care providers, coaches and athletes -- to ensure that we are providing each and every child the happy, healthy future they deserve.”

The Let’s Move campaign really got rolling this summer with a series of events across the country. Katherine Sebeluis, secretary of Health and Human services, participated in the U.S. Council of Mayors in Oklahoma City, Okla., to announce the Let’s Move Cities and Towns initiative. This program taps mayors and elected officials to create healthy schools, provide access to healthy and affordable food, and promote physical activity.

A key aspect of the Let’s Move campaign is outdoor recreation, and in June the Let’s Move Outside program was launched in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Designed to inspire kids to explore the outdoors, the Let’s Move Outside kick-off was attended by the First Lady and Rhea Suh, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget.

The Department of Interior and the U.S. Forest Service have hosted Let’s Move Outside events across the country this summer, encouraging partnerships in the public and private sectors to connect American families to outdoor recreation areas.

The National Park Service is also involved in promoting outdoor recreation as a means to battle obesity. The NPS helped develop the outdoor recreation pillar of the Obesity Task Force Plan, and it’s also looking at ways to make Americans more aware of recreation opportunities in the park system.

“We want to make sure people understand what we have to offer in the area of recreation and exercise,” Dan Wenk, NPS deputy director, told SNEWS. “We’re not just about telling the great stories of our American history, or standing back and looking at nature; we have areas that involve very active recreation. We want people to know about these resources.”

Wenk said the NPS is especially concerned with reaching out to families who live in large population centers, and might not realize the recreation opportunities in nearby National Parks. “For instance, take Valley Forge National Park (in Valley Forge, Penn.),” said Wenk. “Many people do not associate that as a place to recreate. But, if you counted every visitor that came to that park, you would probably find that two-thirds of the visitors are there to actively recreate on the grounds that surround Valley Forge.”

This summer, the NPS rolled out pilot Junior Ranger programs in 50 parks to increase public awareness of recreation opportunities for kids. One such pilot program was introduced at Fort Dupont Park in Washington, D.C., which has 375 acres of wooded land.

“The park is really an outdoors hub for that community,” said Ali Kelley, special assistant to Deputy Director Wenk. “As part of the program, Rangers are taking inner city kids on 45-minute hikes, that have an interpretive component, so the kids learn all about the surrounding woods.”

The Let’s Move Outside section of the Let’s Move website (click here to reach it) directs people to Let’s Move programs and events, such as the Junior Ranger program, as well as a variety of recreation areas in communities throughout the country.

Kelley said that businesses that want to get involved in Let’s Move programs should visit the website for the Partnership for a Healthier America (www.ahealthieramerica.org). This is the organization that links private-sector entities -- i.e. businesses, schools, local officials and community leaders -- to the Let’s Move program, and the “prospective members” section of the site will direct you on how to get involved.

“Manufacturers and retailers can play a significant role in helping kids and adults alike enjoy physical and recreational activities,” Pfohl of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition told SNEWS. “Making it easy and affordable for youth to engage in fun physical activities is important to help them develop the fitness skills necessary to enjoy being active for a lifetime. Supporting youth sports and fitness programs will further this effort and ensure that today’s youth will grow up to be healthy adults.”

The Physical Activity Plan

While the Let’s Move campaign focuses on battling obesity in kids, a separate program -- the National Physical Activity Plan -- hopes to improve the overall health of all Americans, including those who are not necessarily obese.

Developed over the past two years and launched on May 3, the National Physical Activity Plan, spearheaded by National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (www.ncppa.org), taps into partnerships between the private and public sectors to increase the activity level of Americans. As with Obama’s Obesity Task Force, the Physical Activity Plan casts a broad net and includes a wide array of entities, including public health organizations, business and industry, education, health care, mass media, parks and recreation, sports, transportation, community planning, and volunteer and non-profit organizations.

Sheila Franklin, executive director for the NCPPA, told SNEWS the United States has never had something like this before. “This is the first national health plan for physical activity,” she said, adding that it taps into every aspect of our culture “to make sure this was about changing the environments that people work, play and live in.”

According to a NCPPA statement, The National Physical Activity Plan will:

• Make a compelling and urgent case for increasing physical activity in the American population, in order to improve health and reduce the massive toll of disease and health problems attributable to sedentary lifestyles, from diabetes to cardiovascular illnesses to obesity.

• Provide a clear roadmap for actions that support short- and long-term progress in increasing Americans’ physical activity.

• Develop strategies for increasing physical activity in all population subgroups and reducing disparities across subgroups.

• Create a sustained and resourced social movement that provides for ongoing coordination, partnerships, capacity building and evaluation.

• Develop new and innovative strategies for promoting physical activity.

• Undergo periodic evaluation to assess achievements in increasing physical activity.

Click here to see an overview of the plan or to read the plan itself.

An important aspect of the plan is that it is not funded or driven solely by the government, said Allison Kleinfelter, a consultant to the NCPPA.

“It was important that it be a public and private partnership effort and not become a government-only document that almost lives and dies with an administration or funding priorities,” she told SNEWS.

The NCPPA is encouraging all types of private companies and organizations to join the effort, and Kleinfelter said that over the next six to eight months there would be many opportunities for manufacturers and retailers to get involved.

This fall, the NCPPA will roll out a marketing campaign to educate consumers on the plan.

“We really understand to create a culture change, and to create a policy demand, you need support from the public,” said Kleinfelter. “So, we are working on a consumer-facing, media-friendly cause campaign. Regardless of what sector is working on this, whether it be health care or parks and rec and education, we’re going to have a shared brand so that you see that icon and you know it’s aligned with this new change for more physical activity.”

She said companies would be able to take advantage of the campaign and participate in co-branding programs and promotions, as well as efforts to support legislation key to implementing the plan.

Kleinfelter encourages people to visit the Get Involved area of the NCPPA website (click here) where they can register to get updates on the implementation of the plan, and receive information on ways to support and promote it.

Changing the culture

While the government and private sector have launched these sweeping programs to make America healthier, nothing will succeed unless communities rally to make real changes in our culture. Pfohl said an important element in this is citizens, businesses and private organizations working with elected officials to create policies that make it easier to be physically fit.

“To truly create change in our culture, we need to not only have quality programs but also advocate for effective policies,” said Pfohl. “These policies should focus on ways to make it easier to be active in our schools, worksites, faith-based organizations and communities.”

She said business leaders in the outdoor and fitness industries can play a key role in shaping policies.

“Retailers and manufacturers can assist by becoming advocates at the local, state and national levels to ensure that more sidewalks and bike lanes are being installed, trails created and that our communities in general are becoming more walkable,” said Pfohl.

Only by changing our culture will we truly be able to tackle what has become a true epidemic in our society. If nothing is done, the consequences could be devastating. As Newsweek reported in March 2010, “If current trends continue, nearly one in three kids born in 2000 -- and one in two minorities -- will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, according to the American Diabetes Association.” And there’s the rising financial cost, with Newsweek reporting, “The estimated annual cost of obesity in the United States is $147 billion.”

As Pfohl said, our country’s weight problem may have reached a tipping point.

--Marcus Woolf

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