The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Dallas-area physicians on board with first lady's initiative to tackle childhood obesity

02:05 PM CST on Tuesday, February 16, 2010


By NANCY CHURNIN / The Dallas Morning News


First lady Michelle Obama announced her Let's Move initiative, aimed at combating childhood obesity, last week at the White House.

ALEX WONG/Getty Images
ALEX WONG/Getty Images
First lady Michelle Obama introduced members of the Watkins Hornets, the 2009 Pee Wee Division 1 Pop Warner national football champions, during an event to promote fighting childhood obesity at the White House last week.

It was a full-court press with scary statistics. Thirty percent of American kids are overweight or obese. Doctors see a correlation between weight gain and the alarming rise of Type 2 diabetes in children, along with heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma. On Thursday, two days after the program's launch, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that the heaviest youngsters were more than twice as likely as the thinnest to die before age 55.

President Barack Obama signed a memorandum creating the first federal task force on childhood obesity, with a goal of coming up with a long-term plan and benchmarks to chart progress. Mrs. Obama spelled out a multipronged approach, saying she plans to reach out to parents, pediatricians and schools. Melody Barnes, the president's chief domestic policy adviser and director of the Domestic Policy Council, made it clear this program is about pulling resources together rather than just imposing solutions.

"While the campaign is being launched by the first lady, we are very much of the belief that this is about empowering parents and empowering communities," Barnes said on the phone from the White House. "We will be working with mayors and governors, with philanthropic and private sectors."

It was welcome news to Dr. Jon Oden, a pediatric endocrinologist and medical director of COACH (Center for Obesity and its Consequences in Health) and the Dean Foods LEAN (Lifestyle, Education and Nutrition) Families programs at Children's Medical Center Dallas. Oden has been alarmed by the rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes in the children who are referred to his clinic. He sees between 800 and 900 a year and has a waiting list of about 600.

"I think what the first lady is doing is critical, because it brings this problem into the spotlight and doesn't allow us to ignore it," Oden says. "I think it's a great first step. Anything that they can do to encourage kids to eat a healthy diet, anything to make sure that P.E. isn't cut out at schools, is good."

Still, he sees the problem as complex and ultimately hard to solve. Certainly there's a problem with children eating too much junk food, which is one of the things the initiative is trying to change, he says. But economics plays a role in that, he points out. A dollar meal at a fast-food restaurant can fill a child up for a lot less than fresh fruit and vegetables.

Oden notes other problems that don't get enough attention, including a bombardment of advertising promoting junk foods to children and the dearth of affordable after-school physical activities for the vast majority of kids who don't make the school teams.

"It's a critical issue, and it's a very difficult one. I lose a lot of nights' sleep to figure out what to do with them."

Oden says he hopes there will be a way for programs such as his to interact directly and get support from Let's Move. He would also like to see the national program take regional differences into account as they come up with solutions. Texas, he notes, has the sixth highest obesity rate in the country. To address that, he believes the regional diet should be examined, with differences among various racial and ethnic groups taken into account.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper, founder of the Cooper Aerobics Center and the Cooper Institute, says he hopes the Let's Move initiative will, at some point, include testing to clarify what needs to be done. Cooper created the Fitnessgram in 1982, which was authorized two years ago by the Texas Education Agency as a standard test to evaluate the fitness of kids in Texas schools. He also partnered with the Texas Department of Agriculture to introduce the Nutrigram, which assesses the nutritional content of the foods that kids consume. The test will be launched in 2011. The results, like those of the Fitnessgram, will be stored in a National Youth Data Repository.

"You have to start with a test to find out what the problem is before you can give recommendations on how to change it," Cooper says.

In addition to the concerns he shares with the first lady about the health of American children, he is worried about the way it affects their brains.

"Kids that are physically fit are more ready, willing and able to learn. There is a correlation between aerobic capacity and TAKS scores. The brains of fit kids function differently."