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Mary Wittenberg

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Smoking, Seatbelts, and Running: Change is Possible

Posted: 03/25/10 12:45 PM ET

The statistics on childhood obesity are front-page news these days. In the past 40 years, within many of our lifetimes, the number of overweight children ages 6-19 has nearly tripled. If current trends continue, one in three American children born after the year 2000 will contract Type 2 diabetes, a disease that can have a truly horrifying impact on individuals and their families. Statistics like these are shocking, but when we consider the reality that 92% of elementary schools don't have access to daily physical education classes, they really shouldn't surprise us. While the crisis is particularly acute in lower-income neighborhoods, it's a problem that affects all of us, everywhere.

As a working mother of two boys who are growing up in very urban New York City, believe me, I know how hard it can be to ensure kids eat healthy food and turn off their video games in favor of getting outside. Nonetheless, I recognize the critical role that exercise in particular plays in children's personal, social, and academic development, and I know that it's something we simply have to make a priority in homes and in our communities - even though it's harder than 40 years ago.

As a nation, we have stood idly by as childhood obesity has progressed from rare to widespread, allowing our kids to fall into bad habits that can last a lifetime.

In the last several years, Mayor Bloomberg has worked to encourage New Yorkers to live healthier lives through diet and nutrition. Last month, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the Let's Move campaign, an initiative that mobilizes public- and private-sector resources to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation and reshape the way our children are playing and eating. Their efforts are bright spots amid a grim reality.

The First Lady's campaign is taking a multi-faceted approach to tackling the crisis we face. It will increase opportunities for our kids to be active while offering their parents and schools the support and tools they need to make healthy choices on their behalf. It will also bring grocery stores to underserved areas, a problem that I, as a New York City resident, am particularly aware of. Mayor Bloomberg's fruit stands throughout neighborhoods of New York City were a good start. I believe it is comprehensive programs like these that will allow us to beat the obesity epidemic by 2020. Wholesale change is necessary, and we need to equip today's parents, educators, and kids with the tools to win the fight.

The fact that Michelle Obama has staked a leadership position in this fight and is joined in her efforts by so many federal agencies, members of Congress, mayors from across the nation, and leaders from the business, media, entertainment, and sports communities, provides a beacon of light and a moment to seize upon. The First Lady's commitment is a clear sign that we as a nation are ready to take this problem seriously.

This is a problem that is going to take a massive team effort. Leadership at the top is essential and will provide the rallying cry, but it's the schools, and youth and community-based organizations that work with kids on a daily basis that can ensure we gain real traction and, ultimately, succeed. Combating childhood obesity is this generation's war, and it will require coordinated involvement and programmatic solutions at every level. This is a moment to move beyond the rhetoric, and truly get our kids moving.

At New York Road Runners, we are mission driven to get kids running. Our running-based programs serve more than 100,000 children every week in some 400 schools and community centers in New York City, nationally, and internationally. We work to equip teachers and volunteers with the skills they need to engage their students in fun, goal-oriented health and fitness programs in our effort to make running a part of every child's school day.

Our goal may sound audacious, but we really believe it's possible. Think back to a time when nearly everyone smoked. And refused to wear a seatbelt. Gone are those days. Change is possible. We are already seeing it in the lives of the children and families we serve. The future for these children can be so much brighter thanks to a simple, inexpensive investment.

A final note regarding the columns I'll be posting here: I hope to highlight and offer insight on issues related to health and fitness that are affecting our communities. I look forward to your comments and to engaging with you in the months ahead.

 

Follow Mary Wittenberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mary_witt