Thirty million obese children in the U.S. might be slimmer and healthier if they read more, according to the findings of a recent study by the Duke University Medical Center. The “Study of Children’s Literature and Healthy Lifestyle” found that obese girls from 9 to 13 years old who read an assigned novel decreased their Body Mass Index (BMI) seven times more than girls in the program who were not assigned a book to read.
The results of this study seem counterintuitive since sedentary lifestyles are pointed to as one of the major causes for childhood obesity and reading isn’t exactly an aerobic activity. In this case, though, the assigned reading was a fiction novel with an overweight heroine who creates a healthier lifestyle for herself. Presumably, the heroine became a role model and her success in the story inspired readers to create success for themselves.
It makes sense that a fictional character could make this kind of impact, considering how much teens are influenced by fictional characters in movies. A 2006 study by Dartmouth Medical School found that the more movies that children watched in which alcohol was consumed, the more likely they were to start drinking alcohol while they were still in their teens. Dartmouth researchers also found that the children who most often observed smoking in films were twice as likely to start smoking themselves.
So if the real-life behavior of teens and pre-teens is influenced greatly by entertainment channels, it only makes sense that messages that combat the growing childhood and teen obesity epidemic would be best delivered through an entertainment medium that has an impact on them.
This is exactly the logic that led a 14-year old boy in Georgia to create a fitness plan for himself that was inspired by his favorite video games. He called it “The Ultimate Fitness Game” and, with the same gaming strategies he had used to rack up high numbers on a video game scoreboard, he started creating low numbers on his bathroom scale. Three years after taking on the starring role in a three-dimensional game of his own creation, Taylor LeBaron has lost – and kept off – 150 pounds, half of his highest body weight of 297.
“As soon as people started noticing my weight loss, I began to hear, ‘How did you do it?’” Taylor wrote in his book, “Cutting Myself In Half,” which explains his Ultimate Fitness Game. “They were looking for my secret so they could lose a lot of weight too.”
“The secret is: There is no secret,” LeBaron writes. “Weight loss isn’t quick. It isn’t easy. And gimmicks don’t work for long.”
LeBaron believes that taking it slow is one of the most important strategies that can help other obese teens. “Naturally we all want fast results – we’re the DSL generation,” he says in his book. But trying to achieve too much too fast with weight loss is a big mistake, in his experience. Putting it into video gaming terms that teens can relate to LeBaron says, “In gaming, that’s called ‘overlocking’ – running your processor at a faster speed than it’s rated. That burns up the processor and can ruin it permanently.”
The teenage desire for instant gratification is not an easy mindset to reboot, however. Perhaps that’s why there is so much discussion going on about using gastric band surgery as a treatment for obesity in teens. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that gastric band surgery resulted in obese teens losing more weight more quickly. This surgical approach, however, is controversial because it creates a drastic change to a child’s physiology, and there are no statistics about what kind of long-term effect those changes might have on their overall health and well-being.
Instead of making drastic surgical choices, First Lady Michelle Obama is working to encourage obese children to make drastic lifestyle changes instead with her “Let’s Move” program. The First Lady is challenging children to take one hour out of the usual seven that they spend in front of electronic entertainment each day to work on achieving the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award. The award is given to children who achieve exercise goals five days per week for six weeks.
Speaking about exercise, Obama said, ‘There are so many ways that we can make this fun, make it a competition, have the rewards be really cool. And kids respond to incentives.”
That’s a philosophy that LeBaron agrees with wholeheartedly. That’s why he thinks about everything in his own fitness regiment in gaming terms. Calories are money. Unhealthy food is the enemy. Eating healthy food gets energy points. The overall score is measured in weight loss. Just like the First Lady says, LeBaron made it fun, made it a competition with himself, and the rewards, so far, have been much “cooler” than he could have imagined. LeBaron has discovered that permanent weight loss is all about attitude.
In January, Taylor LeBaron was one of ten teens who were chosen by Coke to carry the Olympic torch in the relay leading to the 2010 Vancouver games. As an obese video gamer he couldn’t walk to his mailbox without getting winded. As a physically fit “Ultimate Fitness Gamer,” the 300 meters he ran with the Olympic torch in his hand was “the most incredible distance I’ve ever traveled,” LeBaron said in his blog.
According to the Journal of Obesity, if things keep moving the way they have been in the United States, 86% of men, women, and children will be overweight or obese by the year 2030. For future generations, that statistic would resemble the tragic life depicted in the Disney movie, “WALL-E.” For Michelle Obama, that statistic would represent a “move” in the wrong direction. For Taylor LeBaron that statistic would mean one thing for the population of the United States of America… “Game Over.”