As the leader of KaBOOM!, a non-profit organization committed to helping our kids have fun, be more active, and improve their overall health and well-being, I have been watching Let"s Move with great interest since they launched two years ago. I am encouraged by the progress they've made in addressing childhood obesity, and hopeful about what's to come.
With an initial focus on nutrition and healthy eating, they have garnered a commitment from big box stores and small grocers across the country to build or expand 1,500 stores in communities without access to healthy food. They got the world's largest full-service restaurant company to commit to improve their kids menus by offering fruit or vegetables and milk with every meal, as well as reduce total calories and sodium across their menus. With Americans eating out more than ever, this is a big step in the right direction. They also launched My Plate to make it easier for parents to make healthier choices for their families when they are cooking at home.
But nutrition is just one component of a complex recipe needed to reverse the alarming rise in childhood obesity rates and the inclusion of physical activity is critical. Last November during the first convening of the Partnership for a Healthier America, which was created in conjunction with Let's Move, First Lady Michelle Obama made a passionate case for unstructured play:
"Only one-quarter of kids play outside each day - one-quarter of our kids play outside. And that's compared to three-quarters of kids just a generation ago," said Obama. "Back then, kids were constantly in motion. We rarely went more than a few hours without engaging in some kind of heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, active play."
This was a pivotal moment in the two-day summit, with recognition that a balance between diet and exercise is necessary and that play is an effective form of physical activity.
Let's Move! has worked with mayors and community groups to build or adopt playgrounds so kids have safe places to play and be active. With a 29 percent increase of childhood obesity in neighborhoods without a park or playground, this is an effort that should be applauded beyond KaBOOM!, whose vision is a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America.
Given that the biggest rise in childhood obesity rates are occurring in children ages 3 to 5 years, we must modify our efforts to place an emphasis on prevention versus intervention. By providing our young children with opportunities for free, child-directed play, along with proper nutrition, we are setting them up for a lifetime of healthy habits, versus interventions needed later in life.
Through Let's Move, the Partnership for Healthier America and the leadership of the First Lady, individuals, corporations, non-profit organizations and governments are coming together for the first time with a shared vision: healthier children. But we must do more and we must do it faster.
A cultural shift is needed to incorporate exercise into our children's daily lives. The same pressure that has been placed on those in positions of power to promote and empower healthy eating must be applied to support play and physical activity. This does not mean slowing down efforts to give every community the ability to make healthy food choices, but embracing the balance between healthy eating and exercise.
We must make sure that there is recess and P.E. class in every school, getting kids outside for 60 minutes, every day. Our communities need to be designed and built with sidewalks, parks and playgrounds. And we must be innovative with our policy, using mechanisms like joint use agreements to make sure that school gymnasiums, athletic fields and playgrounds are open after hours for the entire community's use.
If the accomplishments that have been made on the nutrition front are an example of what can be done, I am hopeful we can see similar results with physical activity and reverse the trend of childhood obesity for the next generation.