“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.”
~ First Lady Michelle Obama at the Let’s Move! launch on February 9, 2010
Frank Bruni was a fat kid. He was also the New York Times food critic from 2004-2009 and the best-selling author of Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. In his deeply moving memoir, he explains the problems and perils of being fat and the emotional struggle food caused him as a child and an adult. He said he wanted to write his memoir to show “what food could do to trip people up.”
Apparently food can do a lot to trip you up. Being obese can have a devastating impact on life. A child born in this century has a one in three chance of developing diabetes and an alarmingly high percentage will suffer obesity-related conditions such as cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease. Those numbers go up dramatically in the Hispanic and African-American communities: Right now 40 percent of these children are overweight or obese.
With these statistics, is it any wonder that Michelle Obama would introduce Let’s Move to combat childhood obesity?
I was a fat kid too. Nutrition and exercise have always been passions of mine as an adult, and I take an interest in movements and programs that help children and families learn to live healthier lives.
The solution to childhood obesity seems clear: It lies in early correction and prevention through diet and exercise. This will help curtail lifelong health problems, financial burdens and issues associated with social bias. Movement, along with diet, is a key ingredient in the formula for change. We need to make time for it and use that time well. While a walk around the block will help, there are some powerful, inspiring programs that are leading the way to something a bit more engaging and dynamic.
One organization, the Jump for Joy Foundation, is making a real difference. J4JF is one of the most proactive fitness nonprofits nationwide, especially when it comes to childhood obesity prevention. It works through the power of inspiration and knowledge. J4JF is the brainchild of former UNLV students and camp co-founders Anthony Alegrete and Branden Collinsworth. “We want to make it cool for kids to be fit,” Collinsworth says. “Because we’re competing with Facebook and video games, we want to make it one of the coolest experiences that they’ve ever had and something they can take with them the rest of their lives,” adds Alegrete.
As the research shows, Alegrete and Collinsworth know what they are up against. The duo formed a partnership after Alegrete began employing Collinsworth as a personal trainer. The results were remarkable enough that Alegrete told Collinsworth they had to do the same for kids.
The fitness expert and the businessman joining forces made a win-win situation. But there is a twist to the story. Ironically, Alegrete struggled with being underweight. Over time, he gained 20 pounds of muscle and got into the best shape of his life. “Without Branden,” says Alegrete, “I never would have found this direction.”
I met Branden in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is learning to bring the science of positive psychology to children to help create a positive social identity. Naturally, I wanted to learn more.
The first J4JF camp in 2010 drew three kids, but since then — through social media, the press, and word of mouth — they have became the “cool” guys of fitness and nutrition. They have now had over 100 events and camps and have helped over 3,000 kids. Although J4JF is housed at the Pearson Community Center in North Las Vegas, they also take their program on the road when necessary. They expose children to healthy social identities by offering such fun, friendly and diverse activities as basketball; dance; mixed martial arts; football; jump rope and hiphop.
The men make exercise fun and hip by bringing in celebrity athletes and entertainers and giving parents tools and education. Past celebrities have included professional boxer Lightning Lonnie Smith; KB of the Jabawockies High Profile and Prodigy dance crews; Hey Reb, the UNLV mascot, professional breakdancers; UFC fighters Gilbert “the Hurricane” Yvel, Kevin Randleman, Stephan Bonner, and Larry Mir; UNLV football stars; and even James Brewster Thompson, the world record holder in rope jumping. He wowed the camp-goers by jumping with a 6-pound metal chain for his “rope” and three people on his back.
J4JF also helps parents learn about recipes and healthy meals. Professional nutritionists help them learn ways to break bad eating habits. J4JF sponsors walks to raise money for their organization and provide scholarships for students researching obesity. In other words, they are throwing everything they’ve got at this epidemic, including monthly nutrition and fitness camps and assessments. The trick, it seems, is for kids to be engaged. By exposing them to a wide variety of activities, they can gravitate toward the one they are interested in. Once they are inspired, they want to learn more and deepen their interest, and that may help keep them healthy.
At its core, J4JF is about changing the lifestyle of children and their families. It does that through something called Activities-Based Hobbies and Interests (ABHI). The recreational workouts are free and many more are planned. To see a little bit of where J4JF is headed, check out their trailer for an upcoming movie, No Recess.
The concern about childhood obesity has become so high-profile that it is starting to affect public health policies. Consider the recent proposal by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that sugary soft drinks be no larger than 16 oz. This is a direct effort to combat obesity in New York City, where 58 percent of the adult population and 40 percent of the children in grades K-8 have been identified as overweight or obese.
With an annual health cost to New York of nearly $4 billion (that’s with a “B”), the mayor has a right to be concerned. Portion sizes have ballooned over the past few decades. Children now ingest three times as many snacks a day as they did 20 years ago. According to Let’s Move, the average American is eating over 30 percent more calories, more than 50 percent more fats and oils, and fifteen pounds more of sugar a year than in 1970.
Now we have a crisis.
Bruni, the food critic, was able to overcome his childhood eating patterns — but not until later life, and not without considerable effort. Had his issue been dealt with sooner, he might not have had a bestseller, but may have had much less wear and tear on his body. Seventy percent of obese children become obese adults. Michelle Obama knows that focusing on the issue of obesity and correcting the tendency early is where the focus needs to be. As children become adults their weight can affect more than their health. According to a 2009 article in Obesity by Rebecca Puhl and Chelsea Heuer, weight bias is equivalent to racial bias both in terms of actual percentages and negative impact. Inequities in employment, health care, and education are the result of negative stereotypes that the obese are lethargic and sluggish, undisciplined, unmotivated, noncompliant and incompetent.
A vicious cycle exists where the weight-bias reactions toward obesity actually contribute to maladaptive eating behavior among obese individuals — particularly children — while increasing vulnerability to depression and lower self-esteem. Weight bias actually helps create the very problem it is reacting to. This upward spiral of weight bias, obesity, and deaths from obesity keeps escalating. In fact, when it comes to weight bias, no effective intervention program has been shown to sustainably change the stereotypes and stigma.
Because of these stereotypes, people who struggle with obesity are victims of social injustice, unfair treatment and diminished well-being and quality of life. Our attitudes are not improving. In the last decade, the review reports weight bias has increased over 66 percent. Add to this the World Health Organization estimate that obesity will be the No. 1 cause of death worldwide by 2020.
Now we have an epidemic.
The media makes matters worse. Overweight and obese characters are stigmatized in TV and the movies, and likewise in children’s media including TV, videos and cartoons. Not long ago the New York Times reported on a study in the American Journal of Public Health which showed that it wasn’t the amount of television children watch that predicted obesity, it was the number of commercials a child was exposed to. The more commercials, the higher the risk for becoming obese. The reason is simple: Ads work. The more commercials kids watch, the more ads they see for fast food, sweetened cereals, and junk food.
Devices with screens — cell phones, video games, mp3 players, computers and the endless availability of yet another game-based app — also contribute to children’s inactivity. These devices now take up 7.5 hours a day. That’s not a misprint: Children from ages 8 to 18 spend nearly a third of their day not moving. Gym classes, team and intramural sports are the first to be cut during a budget crisis. Yet statistics show what we don’t deal with now we pay dearly for later, not only with our money, but also with well-being and shortened lives.
If you would like to learn more about The Jump for Joy Foundation click here. They have some tips for families in honor of September, National Childhood Obesity Month. As a nation we are not going to change everything overnight, but if we follow J4JF’s lead we can begin this month by experimenting with three ways families can become more aware:
- Try one new recipe a week this month that aims to have fewer calories and healthier foods. For ideas and inspiration click here.
- Pick one of the activities from this list as a family and initiate one of them each week as well.
- Learn what you can do to get active in your community
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Sep 2012
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Tomasulo, D. (2012). Jump for Joy Foundation Puts Childhood Obesity on the Ropes. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 16, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/09/05/jump-for-joy-foundation-puts-childhood-obesity-on-the-ropes/