Childhood Obesity: It’s Time To Think Outside the Box

by Lisa Gable | March 20, 2014 at 11:28 am | comments

It’s hard to believe, but only 3.8% of U.S. elementary schools offer daily physical education classes for their young students, and only nine states require that elementary schools offer recess. How can this be? As any parent knows, the chance to have kids run around and burn up some of their boundless excess energy is good for their bodies AND their minds. To deprive children of that opportunity is to jeopardize their chances for optimum health and academic success.

How can this alarming trend be addressed?  One way is through creative programs like Reebok’s “Build Our Kids’ Success” (BOKS Kids), which empowers volunteers – from concerned parents to teachers and other school employees – to organize physical activity classes before school for elementary-aged children. These activities are designed to jump-start kids’ brains and make them better prepared for learning while also teaching healthy behaviors that will hopefully become long-term habits. And this isn’t just for suburban schools or those blessed with mild weather. When I asked the BOKS team about schools that don’t have gyms or suffer from long winters, the answer was, “We run up and down the stairs.”

BOKS Kids founder Kathleen Tullie knew that due to bureaucratic political battles at the local, state and federal levels, she couldn’t fight and win the PE battle in the near term.  Driven by a desire to see immediate results, Kathleen organized local volunteers and persuaded schools to add these before-school programs that gave kids an early-morning energy boost while also providing a safe drop-off period for moms and dads.

BOKS Kids is a great program, and it’s one way that childhood obesity can be addressed by thinking outside of the box. As BOKS Kids has proven, you can’t underestimate the impact of heartfelt change when entrepreneurial principals, parents and teachers faced with scarce resources creatively use them to innovate and change their school environment. Plus, there is great pride and the satisfaction of knowing that you “did it on your own.”

We need to see more of this. The organization that I lead, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, has brought together more than 250 food/beverage retailers and manufacturers, restaurants, athletic organizations, sporting goods companies, insurance companies and others, all of whom are united by their commitment to reducing American obesity.  We focus on two main areas – families and schools – to have the most impact.

To achieve our goals, we have tried to think outside the box as well. Through the Foundation’s Together Counts™ grants, we look for schools and communities that are already engaged with our curriculum and shown results, and then harness the power of the local leader to drive long-term impact through the financial incentives we provide.  In other words, schools have to qualify to compete. They have to demonstrate that they want it. We engage communities and parents through PTA grants and schools through outcome-oriented prizing.

At Myrtle Beach Intermediate School in coastal South Carolina, then-Principal Dana Penick was one of those local innovators. Sixty-six percent of her students received free and reduced-price lunch and did not get enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of the school’s students and their families lived in extended-stay hotels or had multiple families in single-family dwellings, and most did not get enough outdoor playtime.

So MBI and its student-led Healthy Challenge Team enlisted students, faculty, parents and local businesses in a campaign to help them eat better and get more daily physical activity, winning a Together Counts grant for their successful efforts. Penick explains, “It’s so important for us to teach them about a lifestyle that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. We want them to know that it’s okay if they don’t have fancy equipment. They can still stay active with whatever they have.”

These are just two of the amazing stories that I hear about all of the time. My foundation is proud to be engaging more than 13 million pre-K and elementary school children across the nation. As the leader of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, I have learned that the battle against obesity is most successfully fought on the local level, by empowering parents and teachers to instill healthy habits at home and at school. Creative and innovative ideas outside of the box make all the difference. If you have one, please get involved, and let us know!

Lisa Gable is the President of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a CEO-led initiative aimed at helping to reduce obesity, especially childhood obesity, in America. She has served at senior levels for four U.S. presidents and two governors, and was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the World Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan. She has worked at Intel, and as a brand strategist for a variety of Fortune 500 companies. Lisa serves on the board of Girl Scouts of the USA; serves on the editorial board of the Diplomatic Courier and is a member of Women Corporate Directors.