Obstructing Obesity

Kathleen Sebelius speaks at podium with seated panel and audience members looking on
September 15, 2010

By Danny Freedman

The secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services joined a roster of world-class professional athletes on campus Tuesday to launch a national fitness drive, the latest push in the government’s battle against Americans’ expanding waistlines.

The initiative seeks to have at least one million people undertake an exercise regimen that will earn a Presidential Active Lifestyle Award in the year that begins this month.

“Winning one isn’t hard,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, noting that participants don’t need to tumble like Olympian Dominique Dawes, land a backflip like NASCAR’s Carl Edwards, or nail a triple axel like Michelle Kwan, who were among the star athletes flanking the secretary. “But you have to be willing and able to go outside and take a walk, or play kickball, take the stairs instead of the elevator, plant your own vegetable garden like our wonderful first lady, Michelle Obama.”

“Ending obesity,” she said, “is critical for our children’s health and for the health of our adults.”

For kids and teens, completing the task will mean an hour of exercise per day, five days a week, for six weeks during an eight-week period; for adults, it’s 30 minutes per day over the same time span. And those exercise minutes can be filled with a wide range of activities: from walking to juggling; gardening to cleaning house; and playing sports on a field to playing them on a Nintendo Wii.

“I’m going to do it,” Ms. Sebelius told a group of local school kids at the news conference, who sat cross-legged on the floor before her. “I was out on the Mall this morning doing my four miles.”

Ms. Dawes, who introduced Ms. Sebelius, said the secretary recently told her that she runs almost every morning, and some members of the Secret Service even “have a hard time keeping up with her.”

After the announcement, held in the City View Room atop 1957 E Street, the mob of kids and pro athletes headed to the park across the street for a few organized games.

The new fitness initiative comes during a month set-aside by President Barack Obama as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

In that official proclamation, issued Sept. 1, Mr. Obama said the nation faces a “childhood obesity crisis” that has been mounting for decades: nearly one child in every three is overweight or obese.

Obese children are at risk of developing chronic health problems—like heart disease, diabetes and cancer—which also tax the health care system. Every year, Mr. Obama noted, nearly $150 billion is spent treating obesity-related medical issues.

In February, First Lady Michelle Obama initiated the “Let’s Move!” campaign that, alongside a federal task force, aims by 2030 to bring the childhood obesity rate down to 5 percent—the level before the obesity rate began to creep up in the late-1970s.

The announcement of the “Million PALA Challenge” on Tuesday followed a meeting of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, a panel of appointed advisers.

Council members on-hand Tuesday, other than Dawes, Edwards and Kwan, included NBA players Grant Hill, of the Phoenix Suns, and Chris Paul, of the New Orleans Hornets; retired Major League Baseball player Curtis Pride, who is now head coach of Gallaudet University’s baseball team; and Cornell McClellan, who is the Obamas’ personal trainer.

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