By Samuel Fromartz
Whew! What a nice break.
I did the unthinkable and went on vacation for 2 weeks without a laptop. I checked email a couple of times at a public library, but truth be told, I didn’t miss it. Not a bit. Without pending deadlines, I had very few emails that demanded attention. And as for all those pesky email lists and alerts, I just scanned and tossed them once I got back.
What I realized was something I already knew but found hard to accept - that email and the web are an incredible time suck, with a plethora of minutia sapping your attention and brain power. It’s the intellectual equivalent of eating too many corn chips in front of the tube. You wonder where all the time went and what you got out of it. (Perhaps I’d even include this post in that -- actually, I will. Take it or leave it).
But now that I am back in this unnatural position, in front of a screen, consuming my metaphorical brain corn chips, a couple of items have grabbed my attention. Like fat. It’s been on my mind this summer. In the summer lull, I happened to catch Shaq’s Big Challenge on ABC in which the giant basketball star corralled a group of morbidly obese kids from the Sunshine state for months, trying to get them to lose weight and get in shape.
The show itself had its moments, leaving me teary-eyed and bleary-eyed. The challenge these kids faced was truly heartbreaking at times, but it was also difficult to dramatize what was a months-long slog of weight loss, exercise and diet change. Shaq helped. He’s actually entertaining. The kids were also heroic. But it’s a crime that they got to such an extreme stage before there was any sort of intervention. Indeed, the public school, with its lack of a physical ed requirement and its fast-food lunches, was an enabler of the epidemic. The parents didn’t help either. In fact, they were part of the problem, which shows how love, spoiling, and nutritional ignorance are a recipe for disaster.
The key, though, was you couldn’t finger anyone for the blame: The clueless school, trying to offer food kids would actually eat (for $1 a meal); the parents, who obviously had their own food issues; the kids, who bellyed up to the trough of candy, soda, burgers, pizza and fries at any opportunity and the culture at large, which provides this smorgasbord and offers absolutely zilch in the way of accessible healthy food alternatives or education. Yes, the critics will claim, these kids and their parents were just exercising free choice to eat what the hell they wanted. But frankly, that’s like saying they were choosing to stick a very slow acting gun in their mouths and pulling the trigger. The bullets were edible and called food. We know the result - an epidemic of obesity that is only getting worse.
As everyone knows, the only way to lose weight is to eat less and move more. Both are difficult. Even with a personal trainer in the mold of Attila the Hun, Shaq’s personal counseling sessions, an obesity doctor, a nutritionist, a receptive school principal and a chef re-engineering the school lunches, it was difficult. And people without resources are expected to do this on their own? No wonder dieting is a $35 billion business which people perennially fail at. (It’s kind of an ideal business model for it ensures repeat customers). All of these kids, however, lost weight, some dramatically. But the big winners were clearly in the minority, which shows you how difficult it is -- even with the most extreme sort of intervention -- to succeed.
There have been several TV shows along these lines (ABC seems to be flogging the genre with its current Fat March in which several obese adults walk from Boston to D.C. to lose weight). Why the interest? There’s a growing audience for these shows -- literally. We are now told that we are getting fatter, according to a widely reported study this week. Not a single state has shown a drop in obesity rates in the past year. People in 31 states have gotten fatter. So there's a entertainment genre for couch potatoes worried about being couch potatoes. (Now if TVs were powered by treadmills rather than enjoyed with potato chips we might actually get somewhere...)
Forget for a moment the impact on heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. (Obesity-related hospital costs for children ages 6 to 17 more than tripled from 1979 to 1999, rising from $35 million to $127 million, according to the report.) Just consider the quality of life issue. The overweight kids in Shaq’s show were unhappy, depressed, with extremely low self-esteem. Their parents, schools and society had failed them. Everyone recognized the train wreck but no one knew what to do. Even the Superstar was flummoxed.
But at least he (even at the behest of a prime time ABC show) tried. The Washington Post mentioned a couple of other examples in its report on the latest statistics, like a "Shape Up" program in Somerville, Mass., that added school crossing guards to previously unattended corners and alerted parents to the change. That boosted by 5 percent the number of kids who walked to school.
But here’s the kicker quote to the Post story, which we should all keep in mind. “Interventions are important to put in place," said Jeffrey Koplan, who directs the Global Health Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. "But none of this is going to turn around [the obesity epidemic] in a year or two, or three and maybe not even in five. We have got to be in this for the long haul."
Kind of sounds like, well, exercising.