Michelle Obama Takes on Childhood Obesity

America's First Mom Talks With WebMD About How Families -- Including Hers -- Can Eat Healthfully and Be Active

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 08, 2010
6 min read

If you ever take a White House tour and hear the sounds of joyful barking, girlish giggles, and a thumping dance-pop beat wafting down from the family quarters, you'll know that you've just happened on a "Bo Dance Party." That's just one of the ways First Lady Michelle Obama (and sometimes her husband, the President) sneaks extra exercise into her daughters' busy days. "We turn up the radio and throw the ball, and run up and down the hall with Bo," says Mrs. Obama, referring to the family's famous Portuguese water dog. "When you're chasing a dog or the dog is chasing you, you can really work up a sweat."

Now, the First Lady is challenging all of America to turn around a troubling trend in children's health by putting an end to the epidemic of childhood obesity.

"Let's Move" -- and I love that name -- is a public-private partnership that, for the first time, sets national goals to end childhood obesity in a generation.

Childhood obesity in America has tripled over the past 30 years, and today, one in three American children is either overweight or obese. This generation is on track to be the first generation in America that's less healthy than their parents. That's outrageous. We don't have time to wait to do something about this.

"Let's Move" has four pillars:

  • Offering parents the tools and information they need to make better decisions about their children's nutrition. This will include everything from improving front-of-package food labeling to a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to encourage BMI tracking at well-child visits to public education partnerships with Disney and NBC.
  • Getting healthier foods in the schools. President Obama has proposed a $10 billion increase in funding when the Child Nutrition Act is reauthorized this year; that's $1 billion a year over 10 years to improve the nutritional quality of schools' meals and get more kids signed up for the program.
  • Improving the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods. We know that 23.5 million Americans live in "food deserts," that don't have access to supermarkets. We want to eliminate those. Cities like Philadelphia have done it, so we know it can be done." "Let's Move" includes a $400 million initiative focused on getting farmers' markets and grocery stores to relocate to "food deserts."
  • Physical activity -- increasing opportunities for kids to play and move. The President's Physical Fitness Challenge is a key component of this effort, but it has to be modernized. It now stresses the importance of athleticism, but not every child is athletic. We just need them to move. We'll use sports leagues and athletics to promote this, partnering with almost every sports league from the NFL and the NBA to the WNBA and women's soccer.

A couple of years ago, I got a tap on the shoulder from my pediatrician. We were always fairly active as a family, but I did get caught on the diet front. I was experiencing what most working mothers are: working full time, a husband that travels, taking kids to activities, and at the end of the day you find yourself too tired to make a full meal with baked chicken and vegetables. So I was doing what most parents were doing: calling the pizza guy too much and hitting the drive-through.

My pediatrician works in a predominantly African-American community and always checks a child's BMI. He told me that Malia and Sasha were heading in the wrong direction. I was surprised -- I thought I was doing everything right! So I made a few changes in our eating habits -- eliminating sugary juices, sending little water bottles in the girls' lunches, and cooking dinner at home at least one or two times a week. (I knew I wasn't going to cook every night!)

By the time we returned a few months later, the doctor was stunned at the turnaround. "What are you doing with them?" he asked. "You told me I had to make changes," I said. The simplicity of that solution was something I wanted to share.

Turn off the TV and turn on the radio, and have a dance party in the living room with your kids. Walk them to school. Cook dinner at home just one or two nights a week. You don't have to do anything drastic to make a difference.

Sure, we have an 1,100-square-foot plot to work with -- but soil, seeds and all, it still cost only $200 to plant. You don't need a lot of money and a big plot of land. I've visited schools that are planting gardens in little boxes -- celery, lettuce, and so forth. You just need a box of dirt and some seeds. And kids love it. They embrace the entire process: planting, harvesting, cooking, and eating.

Pulling stuff up out of the dirt is our girls' favorite thing. Anything that you can pull out of the dirt is great for them, so they love things like carrots. And taking a delicious snap pea off the vine and being able to eat it right there, that's cool.

Barack is all broccoli, all the time. He and Sasha are big broccoli fans. Me, I'm pretty flexible, but fresh peas are always a favorite.

The key is mixing it up. I combine weight training with cardio, and this year I've added on Pilates. The older I get, the more I find I have to stay flexible or injuries come more often. You don't have to run a marathon; a lot of my cardio workout is just walking on the treadmill on an incline.

Minute planks. [Lie on the floor at the top of a push-up position, but instead of doing the push-ups, just hold that pose for a minute -- longer if you can, less if you're not there yet.] Then do one-handed planks on each side. That'll get you burning real quick and strengthen your core. Or do some squats up against the wall. Or jump squats -- jumping up and down and getting your legs moving burns a lot of fat, expends energy, and builds up muscle mass.

We work out together as a couple almost every day, and eat dinner as a family every night at 6:30 unless the President is traveling. We go to our kids' games. We don't allow TV at all during the week, and no computers unless it's school-related. No desserts during the week either -- they're a treat. We have a set of routines and rituals that help us not just from a health perspective, but to stay strong as a family.

Ultimately, that's what "Let's Move" is all about too: not just making kids healthier, but strengthening families. And the beauty of it is that it's not just another government program. It's a series of important partnerships with the business community, nonprofits, and foundations. No one's ever set the goal of ending childhood obesity in a generation before, but we've got momentum now, and we're going to keep going.