By MARSHA MERCER
President Barack Obama is sending a message to the millions of American young people who sit on the couch and watch football on TV: Go outside and play.
The president appears in a new public service announcement throwing a football around the South Lawn of the White House with three National Football League players and some local children. The PSA is slated to run during football games over the holiday weekend and the rest of the season.
Obama is drawing attention to the NFL’s PLAY 60 campaign, a project to fight childhood obesity by encouraging kids to get active for 60 minutes a day. Adults can participate through the United We Serve volunteer program.
The idea seems absurd that the president needs to tell kids play is good, but it’s nothing new. Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have been trying to get Americans off the couch.
In 1953, with American families settling into cozy, car-centered suburbs, a study found that American children lagged far behind those in Austria, Italy and Switzerland in physical fitness. Eisenhower was also concerned that many draftees were too physically unfit to serve in the military. Surely the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II could nip that troublesome trend.
Alas, he put his vice president, Richard Nixon, in charge of developing a plan to encourage fitness.
In December 1960, president-elect John Kennedy took the unprecedented step of announcing a new policy even before he was inaugurated. The crucial issue? Physical fitness.
In an article titled “The Soft American” in Sports Illustrated, Kennedy warned that Americans were neglecting their bodies and getting soft, and that was a menace to national security. He outlined a four-point plan to get people active. The ambitious effort would include a new White House office, the nation’s governors and federal departments.
“We do not want our children to be a generation of spectators,” JFK wrote. “Rather we want each of them to be a participant in the vigorous life.”
When he learned that Theodore Roosevelt had challenged Marine officers to walk 50 miles in 20 hours, Kennedy challenged the White House staff to a 50-mile hike. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was game and walked the 50 miles -- in leather oxford shoes. Inspired, some Americans took up walking, but the fad soon faded.
Check out www.fitness.gov for more history, a fitness test and guidelines for getting fit.
Every president takes a swing at improving fitness. And yet, we sink farther into the couch. Sixty-six million Americans are overweight or obese.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that obesity among children has doubled since 1980 and has tripled for those 12 to 19. One in three children in the United States is overweight or obese, first lady Michelle Obama tells audiences.
Childhood obesity is important as Congress struggles to reform the nation’s health system. Overweight teens are more at risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart trouble and other adult diseases.
The Obamas have made fighting childhood obesity a priority, starting with the White House vegetable garden. They promote fitness and visit schools to shine the media spotlight on healthy food choices. Change, however, will take more than a nudge from the White House.
Many school systems have gone in the wrong direction, cutting recess and physical education. School cafeterias have improved meals but they need to do more. The 30.5 million lunches and 10.1 million breakfasts served daily are balanced but contain too much salt and fat and too many calories, the Institute of Medicine cautioned. Its study recommended serving only low-fat or fat-free milk, requiring more orange and dark green vegetables and setting an upper limit on calories per meal.
Still, school meals are a better choice than the fare at a la carte food lines, vending machines, snack bars and school stores with which meals compete.
Congress is holding hearings in preparation for reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act. Some senators want the government to regulate all foods sold in schools. But food is big business.
The food and beverage industry spends about $10 billion to $12 billion a year on advertising targeted to children, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Even milk is a battleground. Dairy trade groups are spending upwards of a million dollars in a media campaign to defend chocolate milk, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday. Three fifth-graders in Barrington, Ill., joined the battle after their school system banned flavored milk from elementary and middle-school menus.
The children persuaded the schools to serve the treat on Fridays because children weren’t drinking the white milk. The kids were bringing sugary drinks from home. Officials say they’ll decide after January if the benefits of calcium and Vitamin D are worth the extra three teaspoons of sugar per half pint, the Times reported.
Maybe the kids could keep drinking the chocolate milk if they run outside and play.
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.