As National Fitness Month comes to a close, an unlikely new ally has joined the fight against childhood obesity: Nintendo. No, really. The American Heart Association just announced a partnership with the video game company to promote physical activity through its popular Wii system.
It's an unorthodox move, but desperate times call for desperate measures: Military leaders recently gathered in Washington, D.C., to emphasize that today's youth are so out of shape it's a threat to national security. In the space of a generation, we've gone from a missile gap to a pull-up gap. Clearly it's time for some out-of-the-box thinking.
So perhaps it's not surprising that the school lunch, that staple of childhood nutrition, is getting a facelift. Congress is scheduled to review the federal law regulating school lunches, and a diverse cluster of activists has descended onto Washington to shape the new lunchroom rules. From Michelle Obama to organic foodies to animal rights activists, it seems like everyone has an opinion.
One of the most publicized efforts to change school lunches came from British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. He came all the way from England for an ABC miniseries showcasing his efforts to revamp school lunches in Huntington, W.Va. Oliver is famous for being the star of the hit BBC show "The Naked Chef." And Huntington is famous for being known as "America's Fattest City."
Despite the publicity, Oliver's British Invasion was a dud. He swapped out French fries and soda for brown rice and skim milk, but the kids took one look at the new food and said, "yuck." In a follow-up episode a few months later, he returned to Huntington and found that most kids were bringing their own unhealthy food from home.
Oliver's troubles highlight a familiar problem: You can put peas and carrots on the plate, but that doesn't mean your kids will eat them. While it's absolutely a good idea to serve healthier meals, we must remember that getting kids to eat healthy is easier said than done.
Activists should expand their focus beyond the lunch tray. Gaining weight is a product of two numbers: the food we eat ("calories in") and the energy we burn ("calories out"). Eat more calories than you burn, and before long you'll be buying bigger pants.
As kids have been getting rounder, they've also been moving less. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education has found that only 8 percent of elementary schools and 6 percent of middle and high schools require daily P.E. class. And the percentage of students actually participating in those daily classes has plummeted in recent years, to just 28 percent in 2003.
Spending more time on the playground may actually yield benefits in the classroom. A review of 50 studies released this spring by the CDC found that recess can improve students' attentiveness and concentration, and more time in P.E. class can boost test scores, too.
More recess, better learning, better health: It's a win-win-win scenario for parents, teachers, and kids.
Efforts to improve health don't have to stop at the schoolyard, either. Towns and cities can build more parks and bike paths to create an environment that encourages healthy lifestyles. Research last year from Indiana University discovered that living near recreational amenities like soccer fields and tennis courts lowers children's risk of obesity.
Nintendo games and longer recess periods can complement vegetables on lunch trays — but neither approach is going to solve the obesity crisis on its own. Instead of trying to convince second-graders that lima beans taste better than jelly beans, let's help our kids make healthy choices and do what comes naturally. That means a balanced diet including vegetables and occasional treats, and an active lifestyle to help them burn off those calories on the playground or the soccer field.