Exercising Our Right to Slim Down

Is First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program just “moving” us all toward government food control? Although the initiative’s very name suggests a spotlight on the exercise half of the obesity equation, observers are beginning to raise questions (and eyebrows) about its apparent focus on food-policy reform.

George Washington University sociology professor and former American Sociological Association president Amitai Etzioni took a hard look at how “Let’s Move!” has played out, and his findings — while unsurprising — don’t bode well for the battle against the bulge. Etzioni concluded that the mass media “paid more mind to the [program’s] diet elements than to the exercise ones.” And over time the White House has leaned heavily toward food-policy remedies for obesity, at the expense of exercise-related programs. 

“[A]s the program evolved,” Etzioni writes, “the focus turned to caloric intake and not expenditure.”

As we’ve explained before, getting kids off the couch and into a pair of gym shoes could do far more for their health than any amount of nagging, lecturing, new taxes, or marketing restrictions aimed at food. Etzioni seems to agree:

We were unable to find much evidence about implementing the exercise parts of the Let’s Move initiative. This is particularly relevant because of the scaling back and cancellation of physical education classes due to budget cuts … 

Only eight states require that students take physical education every year from first through twelfth grade. 22 states (43 percent) allow required physical education credits to be earned through online courses. Less than one-third of all children ages 6-17 engage in “vigorous activity” (physical activity for at least 20 minutes that makes the child sweat and breathe hard).

One cannot help but wonder how and why a program that started so well is leaning so heavily in one direction, when it would do much better if it moved on both legs.

In the White House itself, doubt about the First Lady’s food-only approach is beginning to simmer. And we’re not even referring to President Obama’s swing through Iowa yesterday, where he bought heaping lunch plates — literally described on the menu as food “mountains” — for reporters, and labeled those who couldn’t clean their plates “chickens.” (And the First Lady herself, despite those famously toned arms, “can’t stop eating French fries.”)

Former White House chef Sam Kass, now the administration’s “Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives,” addressed a childhood obesity conference in San Diego this week. In a head-scratching presentation, Kass said the first lady doesn’t think “a piece of legislation” or “a presidential decree” can make us all thinner. Yet that now appears to be precisely the outcome "Let's Move!" is hoping for.

Speaking specifically about a San Francisco effort to ban soft drinks in hospitals, Kass said sodas aren’t the problem. “This issue is not caused by one drink,” he said.

This leaves the White House with an evolving food and beverage policy that seems to be at odds with the prevailing blame-snacks-and-sodas ideology in today’s anti-obesity movement, and a “Let’s Move!” policy that’s not doing much to get anyone to move.

We’re with Professor Etzioni, and here’s a restatement of his idea that career politicians can understand: “It’s the exercise, stupid!” 

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