The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation recently announced that it’s contributing $500 Million Dollars over the next five years to combat the growing crisis in childhood obesity. The RWJF expects to work with the Feds, state governments, and schools who have already spent billions trying to turn the tide on this problem. Celebrities are speaking up, business leaders getting involved, and I just read where a tri-athlete has dedicated his next event to “raising public awareness of childhood.”
But at this point I need to raise my hand and ask, how much more money are we going to throw at this problem without making the slightest dentin it? How much more aware can we get? If it weren’t for the war in Iraq, childhood obesity would be the number one issue in the news today.
Personal Responsibility Taking Behavior
Sooner or later someone needs to point out an obvious flaw in the midst of all this mega spending, out speaking, and awareness raising. Someone besides McDonald’s needs to recognize that we can spend money until we’re blue in the face, we can speak out, and market the bejeebers out of the conventional “eat right and exercise more” anti obesity message. But until we address the lack of personal responsibility taking behavior that lies at the bottom of this problem, we’ll continue spinning our wheels, wasting time and money to beat the childhood obesity problem. In order to succeed, something must change.
It’s Preventable, But Only If…
We need to recognize that Childhood obesity is a PREVENTABLE PROBLEM, but only if victims learn to take responsibility for what goes in their mouths, and how many calories they burn each day. Kids must learn to avoid junk food, TV, and video games, just like they must learn to avoid tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.
But How Can We Do It?
So how, you may ask, can we systematically teach our kids to eat right, get sufficient rest, plenty of exercise, and to avoid tobacco alcohol and drugs? How do we teach our kids to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR OWN LIVES when everything around them encourages kids to DEPEND ON governments and business for the goods and services from which THEY (governments and businesses) PROFIT?
There are probably other good answers to this troublesome question, but I'm only familiar with one. It's called Operation Pull Your Own Weight. It's incredibly simple, incredibly inexpensive, and I watched it work with elementary school kids for four consecutive years (1990-1994) at Jefferson Elementary School in Davenport, IA. With that intro, here are the basic principals for Operation Pull Your Own Weight along with the ways in which it specifically addresses childhood obesity.
The Basic Premise
The basic underlying premise of OPYOW is that kids who can do pull ups can't carry much excess body weight, and kids who carry much excess body weight can't do pull ups. So the idea is to develop our kid’s ability to do pull ups, and then encourage them to maintain that ability right on through adulthood. To accomplish this simple feat is to naturally immunize kids against obesity for a lifetime.
How Can We Do That?
If you accept this basic premise, the next question becomes, how do you teach kids to do pull ups, when pull ups are the most universally hated exercise on the planet? You have to start by recognizing that it's not really pull ups that kids hate. It’s FAILING IN FRONT OF THEIR PEERS that kids hate.
Kids who can do pull ups and who succeed in front of their peers, don't hate pull ups. In fact they enjoy being able to tackle a difficult task like pull ups, and succeed in front of their peers. It becomes a badge of honor, a status symbol. I personally witnessed an entire school full of kids learning to love pull ups back in the early nineties.
Here’s the Key
So then, how do you make pull ups accessible to all kids, and transform hated failure into joyful success? You use a simple device called a HEIGHT ADJUSTABLE PULL UP BAR (it raises and lowers in one inch increments) in conjunction with LEG ASSISTED PULL UPS (encouraging kids to jump and pull simultaneously) which allows almost all kids to succeed on the pull up bar immediately in front of their peers, week after week after week. Because of their continual success, participants look forward to the opportunity to tackle a difficult task and to succeed front of their peers. At that point pull ups become valued instead of despised. Let me explain.
The Starting Point
The idea is to allow kids to keep their feet on the ground, lower the bar to a point where they can jump and pull simultaneously, and easily perform eight leg assisted pull ups in workout number one. In workout # 2 the children are allowed to do nine pull ups. In workout # 3 they're allowed to do ten, in # 4 eleven, and finally in workout # 5 they're allowed to do twelve pull ups.
Once they develop the ability to do 12 pull ups at one level, the bar is raised ONE INCH and the whole eight to twelve routine is repeated over and over again until their pull up goal (the ability to do one real pull up) is reached. Sometimes it takes several months for kids to eventually run out of leg assistance and to reach the point where they're finally doing real live pull ups…IN FRONT OF THEIR PEERS and loving every second of it.
In the wake of each and every workout every child is instantly congratulated by their peers and their teacher, thus kids learn to succeed and to feel good about themselves every time their hands hit the pull up bar! Kids automatically develop physical confidence in themselves under these conditions.
An Opportunity Not an Obligation
At Jefferson Elementary School, pull ups were always treated as an opportunity (you got to do pull ups) not an obligation (you had to do pull ups). Kids were “allowed” to work out only twice a week, and to do only one pull up more than they did last time.
Strong VS Weak, Not Good VS Bad
OPYOW also took full advantage of every kid’s desire to be strong and to avoid being weak…at anything. Have you ever met a child who wants to be weak at anything? And the ability to do pull ups is universally associated with being strong. In other words we never talked about avoiding obesity. We always talked about getting stronger on the pull up bar. The conversation was always positive, and we avoided negativity.
Lessons Bred Into OPYOW Participants
And how does a kid grow strong on the pull up bar? There are six simple answers to this question and teachers were constantly reinforcing them throughout the PYOW experience. In a very hands-on way kids learned that, in order to gain strength on the pull up bar they had to work regularly, eat right, get sufficient rest at night, and they had to avoid using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.
On the flip side they learned that if they failed to do the work, if they ate much junk food, if they didn’t get enough rest, and if they fooled around with tobacco, alcohol and drugs, they’d be making themselves weak not strong. And as we said before, there’s no such thing as a kid who wants to be weak at anything.
This point cannot be overstated so I’ll repeat it once more. These kids were exposed week after week after week to the lessons of OPYOW which included…
• Gaining strength (on the bar) is an opportunity not a right – in other words, in this school you could be denied the opportunity to get on pull up bar if you failed to get your work done or you misbehaved in class...a reward for good behavior.
• You gain strength through regular work
• You gain strength by eating right
• You gain strength by getting enough rest
• You become weak by fooling around with tobacco, alcohol, and drugs
• Kids also learned that NOBODY CAN DO IT FOR YOU
• Kids learned to tackle a difficult task and to succeed in public by setting concrete goals, and growing in small, but regular, predictable increments.
• In other words, as the result of learning to perform pull ups, KIDS LEARNED PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY TAKING BEHAVIORS.
Self Respect, Self Confidence, and Dignity
Interestingly enough the same principles that apply to strength gain on the pull up bar also apply to strength gain in reading, writing, arithmetic, and anything else in life. And by participating in OPYOW, kids not only immunize themselves against obesity for a lifetime, but they also develop a tangible sense of self respect, self confidence, and dignity that are cultivated most effectively when the PYOW seed is planted at a young age, and allowed to develop right on into adulthood.
Systematic Repercussions Not Forgotten…
None of the previous commentary is intended to negate the role that the system plays in aggravating problems like childhood obesity. That’s blatant, obvious, and it needs to be addressed.
But to the degree that kids learn to take responsibility for their own lives, in as many ways as possible, they’ll grow strong, despite the system. To the degree they fail to take responsibility, they’ll be victimized by the system. And in the end, only strong people are capable of tackling difficult tasks like improving a problematic system. So hats off to those kids who learn to pull their own weight at a young age, and who master themselves instead of becoming mastered by the system. They’re the hope of the world.
Rick Osbourne is a Chicago based writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Operation Pull Your Own Weight, an informational web site that's dedicated to naturally immunizing kids against obesity for a lifetime without pills, shots, or special diets. If you're interested in childhood obesity prevention, then check out either www.pullyourownweight.com, or www.pullyourownweight.net any time. Osbourne is also a public speaker, and he’s recently published a book entitled “Operation Pull Your Own Weight: A Radically Simple Solution to Childhood Obesity,” (on the web site) that provides practical minded parents and educators with a simple, functional, affordable, and infinitely measurable antidote to childhood obesity. Osbourne can be reached by email at Osbourne.firstname.lastname@example.org.