As awareness of the obesity crisis intensifies, we are inundated with finger pointing as to who’s to blame. Lawyers are filing lawsuits against restaurants and food manufacturers to force them to change the way they do business and offer healthier products. Food companies are an easy target, but obesity is about more than the food we consume. Our environment is full of televisions, computers, automobiles, elevators, drive-thrus, and other products and services that minimize physical activity. A recent Harris survey found that Americans spend 7.7 hours a day sitting and 4 hours a day watching TV and playing computer games.
Today, 60% of the American adult population is overweight or obese. To properly tackle the problem, we must make the connection between the food we eat and our physical activity level. Simply, we must move enough to burn the food we eat to maintain energy balance. Our environment is not going to change overnight. We need a social change movement that reinstates both activity and healthy eating into our lives.
The Partnership to Promote Healthy Eating and Active Living, a national nonprofit organization, recently launched America on the Move™, a social-change initiative that encourages individuals to achieve energy balance by making small lifestyle changes. At its basic level, it provides ways for people to take an additional 2,000 steps a day or eat 100 fewer calories a day. It is scientifically proven that making these simple changes will help Americans stop gaining the national average of 1–3 pounds a year.
AOM was piloted in 2002–03 as a statewide initiative, Colorado on the Move™, with support from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many public and private organizations. During the first year, more than 200 organizations and 150,000 individuals participated in the program. Colorado on the Move is now testing environment changes, such as signage at the Denver Zoo that shows the number of steps around the grounds, and policies in worksites that support employees’ getting more physical activity during the work day.
AOM is the “umbrella” under which programs are developed and delivered to organizations nationwide, including worksites, schools, community centers, medical centers, and religious institutions. It reaches consumers through four channels:
1. Its Web site (www.americaonthemove.org) provides free programs and tools and enables individuals and groups to track their progress.
2. It delivers grassroots community programming through its national affiliate network, where states (e.g., Virginia on the Move) have an AOM coordinator working across many sectors of the community to implement programs and events. AOM plans to have all 50 states in the affiliate network by 2006 and is already working with 20 affiliates.
3. It has national delivery partners (e.g., AARP, American Diabetes Association, YMCA of the USA) who work with AOM to develop programs that reach their constituencies.
4. It offers sponsor-supported programs in the retail environment to provide consumers with incentives to move more and eat more healthfully.
The ultimate goal is to encourage simple changes in lifestyle everywhere we go—at our schools, the places we work, and where we play and shop. Only through a completely integrated initiative can we truly get America moving and off the road to obesity.
The success of AOM and other healthy initiatives is incumbent on multi-faceted support. Individuals must make behavior changes that improve their own lifestyles. Organizations must commit to developing programs that encourage constituents to eat healthfully and be more active. Schools must offer good food choices in vending machines and plan nutritious school meals. Worksites must add policies to inspire employees to be more active and must provide access to walking paths, signs reminding people to take the stairs, or flex time for healthy activity.
Local and state governments must create legislation to build an infrastructure that educates, promotes, and supports healthy lifestyles. Whether it’s adding more walking and biking trails to a community or developing public policy, if the infrastructure doesn’t exist, the movement cannot be sustained. Finally, the initiative needs the involvement, not just the support, of private industry, including those industries that supply food that affects our dietary patterns and technology that affects our physical activity patterns.
If we don’t do something now, we are assigning our children to a life that may be shorter and of a lower quality than our own. It is time to realize that obesity is not simply a matter of personal choice. The environment in which we live encourages overeating and a sedentary lifestyle. We have to change our environment to one that makes it easier for more people to make better choices about what they eat and about how much physical activity they get.
Let’s not point the finger at whom we think is to blame, as it is hard to find anyone who isn’t somehow contributing to the problem. Rather, let’s point the finger at those who are stepping up to become part of the solution, and applaud their efforts to help solve this crisis.
by Laura Simonds is Executive Director. America on the Move, 150 Harrison Ave., Boston, MA 02111.