Let’s Move! Childhood Obesity Initiative Celebrates 5 Years—But Is It Working?

Five years ago, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move! initiative to curtail staggeringly high rates of childhood obesity. The program emphasizes wholesome habits for food and fitness in hopes of making kids healthier within one generation.

About one-third of all children and adolescents are overweight or obese, according to the campaign, and that figure is even higher in minority communities. Childhood obesity can be deadly, creating the potential for high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, along with an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes later in life.

The White House’s Let’s Move! campaign promotes healthy eating and exercise to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.

Kids, along with adults, live increasingly sedentary lives. Fewer students walk to school, instead opting for bus or car rides. Video games and television have replaced hide-and-go-seek. Fast food has replaced healthy meals made from scratch.

As the culture changed, waistlines have expanded, and most of the nation’s top diseases and conditions—ranging from heart disease to back pain—are largely preventable and manageable with healthy lifestyle choices.

But it all starts with kids. Obese children are likely to grow into obese adults who pass those same behaviors onto their children, affecting future generations. Five years ago, when Let’s Move! launched, Obama said:

“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation, and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.”

Over the past five years, Let’s Move! childhood obesity initiatives have infiltrated lunchrooms, ushering in new school lunch nutrition guidelines for the first time in 15 years. The changes were intended so that lunches would incorporate more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and fewer pizzas and French fries.

To help schools incorporate healthier standards into their lunches, Let’s Move! created an ancillary program called Chefs Move to Schools. The initiative placed local chefs in cafeterias to help school cooks prepare food that was healthy but still delicious, according to the website.

On the physical fitness front, Let’s Move! has collaborated with local elected officials nationwide to evaluate their communities and see how much space is available for play, and then determine if additional space would help promote more outdoor activity.

All together the changes, particularly related to school lunches, have not been without criticism.

Kids wanting fries and getting green beans posted sad photos on social media, school lunch staff protested the changes, and food companies themselves complained about the new standards, reports CNN. Some government officials compared the changes to a “nanny state” that reaches a little too deeply into the lives of families at home, CNN says.

Yet despite the controversy, Let’s Move! has made gains in its five years of existence. From 2004 to 2012, the rate of obese children aged two to four dropped by 43%, according to CNN. And while the overall childhood obesity rate still hovers around 17%, unchanged from before the initiative started, advocates sound hope because the rates are holding steady, and not rising.

In May, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that 95% of schools nationwide were meeting new lunch nutrition standards.

Obama is careful to avoid claiming too much credit, and she referenced in a television interview the broader cultural shift that is trending toward health and away from the golden arches, CNN reports. (Fast food king McDonald’s is closing 700 stores worldwide in 2015, reports Fortune. The magazine says chains like Chipotle, which emphasize fresh, fast, healthy food, are eating into sales.)

Let’s Move! efforts mirror a broader cultural shift that is increasingly aware of the health effects of eating unhealthy food.

Meanwhile, lower obesity rates in young children also give experts hope that kids are learning healthy habits that will transfer into their later years. Dr. Deb Galuska, an associate director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tells CNN:

“Across the whole spectrum of kids what we’re seeing…is a slowing down and stabilization (of obesity rates).”

Although the gains—or stability—can’t be directly linked to Let’s Move!, experts say all efforts help when it comes to helping children adopt healthier habits.

Other accomplishments touted by Let’s Move! include convincing Disney to require all food products linked to the brand to meet nutritional guidelines, including limited sugar content. Corporate partnerships didn’t end there. Let’s Move! also partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield to finance select street closures that increased spaces for kids to play.

Even gym class has received a makeover. While physical education has typically emphasized competition and athletic prowess, The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition now focuses on teaching kids how to live an active lifestyle, so even those who aren’t sports stars can learn to enjoy fitness.

Let’s Move! targets both food and fitness to help kids make healthy, active choices for the rest of their lives.

A cornerstone of Let’s Move! is involving people throughout the community, from parents and community leaders to kids, elected officials, and health care providers. The movement’s official website provides a wealth of resources for all stakeholders to participate.

For example, parents are encouraged to walk with the family after dinner or keep fruit on the table for a fresh and fast snack. Kids can still enjoy their TV time, but Let’s Move! encourages jumping jack sessions during commercial breaks. Schools can plant gardens.

Meanwhile, community leaders can also do their part by martialing the resources of organizations to raise awareness about healthy eating and movement. And at the top levels, elected officials have great power to make health food accessible and affordable.

For example, in the last few years, Arizona changed its state law to make it possible for cafeterias to serve food from school gardens.

To celebrate the campaign’s fifth anniversary, Obama released a video—with a surprise visit from President Barack Obama—encouraging everyone to #GimmieFive, with the hashtag for social media use.

#GimmieFive encourages people to do five of something healthy, whether that’s try five new vegetables or do five pushups. To spread the word, participants are encouraged to post a picture of their efforts on social media, using the hashtag #GimmeFive.

Have you participated in any Let’s Move! initiatives?

Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr