Pull Your Own Weight: An open letter to Michelle Obama regarding childhood obesity

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

Changing the Default vs. Changing the Strategy

A column by Rick Osbourne

Dear Mrs. Obama,

Please allow me to start by saying that I applaud all the time and effort you’ve invested into the issue of childhood obesity prevention and rehab. Had you not done so this epidemic would still be inflicting its damage on millions of kids below the media’s radar. You’ve changed that. But as you readily confess, the job is still a long ways from finished.

That said, in my view, conventional agencies (including the US Center for Disease Control, American Medical Association, American College of Sports Medicine, American Academy of Pediatrics, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Let’s Move, The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, etc.) who endorse the strategy known as The Environmental Approach to Obesity, represent a systematic obstacle that continually undermines your valiant efforts.

This strategy is based on the premise that people, and especially kids, are passive reactors to their environment. It treats kids collectively (not individually), as if they are nothing more than lumps of clay being molded and shaped by their environment. But it fails to take into account that kids (who are each faced with decisions and choices to make every single day of the week) are also pro-active molders and shapers of their own lives.

To demonstrate, let me point to an exchange I had recently with a member of one of these agencies. I posed the following questions and received the following answers.
Q – By starting young, before the obesity seed takes root, and helping kids learn to physically pull their own weight (which they genuinely love to do) kids not only systematically turn the tide on childhood obesity, but the documentation would be 100% concrete and tangible as opposed to mushy surveys about what people think about whatever.

The bottom line is that this intervention works. It can be applied systematically. And there’s not a school or youth program in the nation that’s unable to afford to implement it. As I said when we spoke, I want to avoid wasting anyone’s time. So, with these considerations, I’d like to know if you think our functional intervention fulfills your criteria.


A – Thanks for providing more information on the program. Our group funds research studies and evaluations of policy and environmental change and does not fund studies focused primarily on individual behavior change. While the intervention you propose may be scaleable to schools or youth programs, it is still focused primarily on changing each child’s individual behavior and therefore, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to fit within the scope of this CFP.


Q – Although it’s been explained to me on a number of occasions, the logic of the “environmental approach” still escapes me. It seems that regardless of how anyone addresses the obesity problem, in the end they’re still trying to impact the behavior of individual human beings. After all, the US is made up of over 300 million individual human beings, a third of whom are apparently obese. By any chance can you square that round peg for me?


A -Ultimately we do want to change individual behavior, but how we change that behavior is through environmental change. For example, if you change the school food environment so that there isn’t any junk food available to students, the students will most likely eat the healthier food that is available. In the nutrition field we call it changing the default to one that is healthier and promotes healthier behaviors.


Another example is changing children’s menus in restaurants so that they provide milk instead of pop and apples instead of fries. Parents can still choose to purchase the unhealthy options, but because the “default” is healthier they will likely choose it. While education is indeed very important, our program focuses on a higher level (policies and environments) so that the change can impact more people.


Q – While I agree with the “changing the default” strategy, my contention is that the changes can be increased/improved dramatically and systematically by also addressing the problem from a functional perspective. So why not combine “the passive, environmental approach” with “the active, functional approach” and save millions of kids the trials and tribulations of living their lives in a state of obesity?


Venturing Outside the Box?

For the record, I received no answer to this last question. However, as I indicated, despite the fact that the environmental approach is extremely complicated (multiple culprits), expensive (many billions) to implement, and time consuming (at least a generation to resolve), I tend to agree with its logic, with its theory? On the other hand, as Yogi Berra once pointed out, “In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is.”


And in practice, the environmental approach has fallen excruciatingly short of the mark for over two decades now, while the epidemic rages on. So why not venture outside the box? Why not try something new and interesting? Why not combine the environmental approach with a strategy the American Society of Exercise Physiologists describes as “A simple, easily implanted, easily documented, and affordable solution to childhood obesity?” It works. It’s cheap. It’s systematic. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. I for one say, LET’S MOVE!!



Rick Osbourne

Pull Your Own Weight Foundation

Naperville, IL



Rick Osbourne is a former physical educator and a pioneer in the field of functional childhood obesity prevention. He currently serves as President of the Pull Your Own Weight Foundation which is an Illinois based, 501c3, not for profit organization whose focus is functional childhood obesity prevention. He’s written and published three books in this field, the latest of which is entitled Beating Childhood Obesity Now: A Simple Solution for Parents and Educators. He’s the Examiner’s national childhood obesity prevention correspondent. He writes an online column for The Edvocate. And you can connect with Rick via Twitter, Linkedin, or Facebook.

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