When it comes to changing behavior — whether it’s getting more exercise or eating more healthful foods — people need more than just information about what they should be doing.
They also need help in doing it — the availability of a safe place to play in the neighborhood or appealing school lunches, for example.
Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, launched recently with the goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation, promises a comprehensive approach to the issue.
The initiative includes working to change food and beverage package labeling to provide more consumer-friendly information; educating medical providers to regularly monitor children’s Body Mass Index and counsel families on healthy eating; identifying and eliminating “food deserts” — communities or neighborhoods with limited access to fresh and nutritious food; increasing farmers’ markets; improving the quality of school meals; and increasing children’s physical activity.
“One of the strengths is they are really addressing this from a lot of angles,” said Marian Huhman, a University of Illinois communications professor.
Huhman worked for eight years as a researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She helped develop and evaluate a five-year campaign called VERB, designed to encourage young people to be more active.
The VERB campaign, Huhman said, tried to create a social norm for physical activity as the “cool thing to do. We tried to elevate play as the more beneficial, fun thing to do.” It poured money into an advertising campaign during its first year to achieve this.
“What I like about (Let’s Move) is, VERB did lot with media first, then more trickling down to communities,” Huhman said. “This one is starting with communities. There’s a lot of emphasis on working with schools, with neighborhoods, farmers’ markets, safe routes to school.”
Huhman said she was encouraged the initiative is looking at policy changes, such as the nutrition labeling, improving school lunches and putting more physical activity into the school day.
“There’s a lot more here than just informational and media approaches,” she said.
Her research at the CDC showed some of the barriers to changing behavior, such as reducing the time children spend watching TV or on the computer.
“As a parent, you’re working, and you have to put meal on the table,” Huhman said.
There’s also the perception of neighborhood safety.
“Whether it’s walking to school or walking to the park, (parents) feel they have to get the kid in the car and drive them,” she said.
And there’s the expense and transportation of getting a child to a practice or game for an organized sport.
“There’s so much emphasis on professional sports. There’s probably a lot of interest for kids to be in organized sports, but it gets very competitive very young, and the financial (aspect) becomes overwhelming if you’re talking about traveling teams,” Huhman said.
Huhman said the VERB campaign showed using celebrities or cartoon characters popular with children is effective in getting the message to children about the importance of exercise or eating nutritious foods.
Rewards also work, and the Let’s Move plan includes revamping the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge, with the goal of doubling the number of children earning an “Active Lifestyle Award” for commiting to being active five days a week for six weeks.
Huhman is hopeful the initiative will change policies at the local level.
And, she said, Michelle Obama is a great spokesperson for the cause, as a parent of two young daughters. She’s also built interest around the issue, Huhman said, beginning with planting her White House garden as a way to talk about good nutrition.
About the writer:
News-Gazette staff writer Jodi Heckel has been a runner since high school. She runs races ranging in distance from 5Ks to marathons, and qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time last fall. She’s currently training for this spring’s Illinois Marathon, which will be her 16th marathon.
She also loves swimming and hiking.
She’s been a reporter and writer at The News-Gazette for 14 years. She covers K-12 education and writes a fitness column that runs every other Tuesday.
About this blog:
The Starting Line will provide information about fitness, from research to local events to people in the community who are pursuing their own fitness goals. Contact Jodi with questions or suggestions.