Message to Mrs. Obama: Exercise Only Won’t Do the Trick
17 Dec, 2011
At a recent summit on childhood obesity, the first lady announced a shift in her well-known Let’s Move campaign — away from food reform and toward an increased focus on exercise. Instead of “forcing [children] to eat their vegetables,” she told her audience, “it’s getting them to go out there and have fun.”
Yes, you heard that right. The first lady actually said that eating vegetables is a chore. And that playing is a preferable focus for her campaign because it’s easier.
In February 2010, when the first lady announced a campaign to “end childhood obesity within a generation,” I was immediately skeptical. I worried that “Let’s Move” signaled an over-emphasis on physical activity, a much safer political issue than eating habits, and one that Big Food gladly embraces.
But when I took a closer look, I was pleasantly surprised to see that three of the four issues areas initially identified by the campaign were food-related. (A fifth issue has since been added.) The goals or “pillars” of the campaign are: 1) improving access to healthy, affordable food; 2) providing healthy food in schools; 3) empowering parents and caregivers; 4) increasing physical activity; and 5) creating a healthy start for children.
It’s hard to argue with any of those worthy causes, and it’s important to have the first lady bring attention to issues such as food deserts, and to serve as a national spokesperson in a way we’ve not seen before. I have also given praise where praise was due, such as when the first lady recommended — as part of a checklist for daycare centers to follow — significant limits on screen time for children.
And while the White House insists that food is very much still on the agenda, it’s hard to ignore the potential for politics going into an election year. (When New York University professor Marion Nestle recently dared to question the first lady’s renewed emphasis on exercise, she got set straight by White House chef and Let’s Move advisor Sam Kass; that’s how touchy this subject is.)
Exercise is fun, but it doesn’t match the science
Putting politics aside for a moment, let’s talk research, which can often get lost in the shuffle or, worse, distorted by corporate interests.
Obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, says the first lady’s focus on physical activity to help “end childhood obesity in a generation” is misguided. More importantly, he says, it’s not evidence-based.
He pointed me to many scientific studies showing that physical activity, while important for other reasons, has not been shown to be effective in preventing childhood obesity. (See here, here, here, and here.) On the contrary, data shows that an increase in food intake alone explains the rise in obesity in children.
Children’s diets have changed so drastically in the last few decades, with the increase in calories, for example, due to soda and fast food so large, that moderate increases in exercise are not likely to make a difference.
As Freedhoff explains, it’s a “testament to the simple fact that it’s far more difficult to burn calories than it is to consume them.”
To be clear, exercise does have many health benefits; it just shouldn’t be used to distract us from overconsumption and marketing of junk food. Also, lots of skinny kids suffer from diet-related health problems, including allergies.
So if science isn’t driving the exercise bandwagon, what is?
Playing it safe
After nearly two years, it’s clear that Let’s Move is steering away from anything that challenges the food industry. In fact, the campaign organizers appear eager to form corporate partnerships. For example, the first lady hailed Walmart’s so-called “healthy food initiative” as a new “nutrition charter.” Of course, Walmart hasn’t exactly kept its promises when it comes to the environment, so we have little reason to trust the company when it comes to nutrition.