“Hate Mail from a Pediatrician”
“Georgia, Texas, North Carolina
I think I’m suffering acute angina!”
Really? Rick Reilly claims he hears chubby little girls singing this rhyme while skipping rope all the time. Now don’t get me wrong. I love Rick Reilly’s editorials. For those who are not into sports journalism, Rick was a well-known writer for Sports Illustrated with a highly popular column, “The Life of Reilly”. The column featured heart-warming, tear-jerking human interest stories from the world of sports: profiles of courage and valor, interspersed with opinionated diatribes of sarcasm and hyperbole (as above), criticizing anybody or anything Rick wanted to take aim at — especially the arrogant and the self-important. These diatribes are often not only creative, but highly hilarious (even to an old stodgy physician like me)!
However, I must admit I was indignant after reading an article entitled “The Fat of the Land” in his notorious collection Hate Mail From Cheerleaders. Rick Reilly strayed outside his area of expertise in this satirical criticism of American children, their parents, gym teachers, and the school system in general. Rick considers obesity to be a failure of society to discipline its youth. Parents are ridiculed for promoting physical laxity in their offspring: “Parents are escape artists for their kids.” Reilly describes a severe generation gap: “We used to play kick the can every summer night; now kids play ‘sit on your can’.” Apparently, we parents make our kids eat junk food while we bike or drive them to play dates. The schools are really at fault, failing to teach the food pyramid. Gym teachers are the worst culprits – instead of making kids sweat, they conduct competitive cup stacking drills. Not to mention the school board and the politicians whose allotment for physical education compares with the “size of Dick Cheney’s heart.” Reilly’s condemnation goes on and on.
“Is it difficult for your six year old to play hide and seek anymore? I see you Amber – at both sides of the Buick.” Such hyperbole and negativity are counterproductive in the war against obesity. True, one-in-three American children is obese and at risk for Type 2 diabetes, but I believe that obesity is largely a genetic disease. We cannot control the genes as much as we cannot control the color of one’s eyes or the shape of one’s nose. But we do have control of the epigenetics — the environmental factors which modify the expression of the genes.
My humble suggestions: Start off on a high note – teach the food pyramid to newborns. Breastfeed infants as long as possible, even if it means breastfeeding two children at the same time. Frankly, after that, kids are on their own.
In the real world, recommending diets is far less effective than incentivizing physical activity. School gym classes really are far more structured than in Rick Reilly’s day. Gym teachers rarely allow “down time” – if you’re not sweating to calisthenics, you’re sweating to hip-hop videos produced by the teachers. I personally think that all middle- and high-school students should have mandatory participation in a school sport, regardless of size, ability, or personality. Contributing to any team builds character. A coach should be judged not by the success of his team, but by the improvements realized by the “scrubs”.
Incentives and positive reinforcement are the key elements in this war – not humiliation. I have seen great success with running clubs that allow kids to accumulate miles in small increments up to a marathon distance in order to receive a medal equivalent to that of a true marathon finisher. Increase the increments to 5 kilometers, then 10 kilometers, and you’re on your way to 26.2 miles. Children will follow the lead of their parents. I believe the athletes of Generation Y will surpass their parents in sheer speed and in sheer numbers.
PS: I can hear it right now. Slender little girls singing in unison while they run circles around Rick Reilly and his negativity:
“Georgia, Texas, North Carolina,
I’m gonna kick Reilly’s can to China!”