Bill Clinton: How we can fight childhood obesity

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Editor’s Note: Bill Clinton is the founder of the Clinton Foundation and the 42nd President of the United States. Nancy Brown is the CEO of the American Heart Association. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation was founded in 2005 by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation as a response to the growing rate of childhood obesity in the United States. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) — In the early 1990s, fried foods, carbohydrates and desserts dominated Marybelle’s high school lunch choices. Vending machines lined the school hallways, offering sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks. With limited healthy options, Marybelle unsurprisingly developed habits that led to high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Today, it’s a different story for her son, Bobby, who’s in the seventh grade, and his generation. Bobby started an afternoon fitness club at his middle school and volunteers in his school garden. The school’s food service director ensures that students are served fresh fruits and vegetables. Bobby has motivated his mom to give up soda, and together they take morning walks around the neighborhood. “No excuses, Mom!” he says when she insists there’s not enough time.

We can identify with children who have a problem staying healthy. Former President Bill Clinton’s heart surgery was a wake-up call; it triggered a decision to do something to help children be healthier. After exploring options together, we recognized that one of the most important issues facing our country today is childhood obesity, which can lead to grave health consequences.

That’s why the Clinton Foundation partnered with the American Heart Association to launch the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Driven by a shared desire for the next generation to have a healthier relationship with food and fitness, our core philosophy has been to bring everyone to the table — schools, companies, communities, health care professionals and families — to empower children to develop lifelong healthy habits.

As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, we are proud of the progress that the country has made. Initiatives like First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” have brought attention and instigated positive behavioral changes.

But there is still much to be done. After a steady rise for many years, the number of calories American children take in each day is going down. Childhood obesity rates, though still too high, have now leveled off, and are starting to go down in some populations. The 5 billion school lunches served each year are more nutritious than they were a decade ago. Children are eating less processed food and drinking less sugar-sweetened beverages and full-fat milk.

Schools have made progress toward implementing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition standards. Implementing these standards hasn’t always been easy. But we’ve seen these changes take place in cafeterias across the country, and we know firsthand its positive impact on children’s health.

American students have been given the option of healthier foods, and they are responding by choosing to eat them. Now, more than 95% of schools across the country are meeting these federal nutrition standards for school meals. Dialing back the USDA’s school meal regulations would do far more harm than good. So we must sustain this momentum and ensure that our children continue to have access to better food, because healthy kids learn better.

Eating better is just one side of the coin in our fight to help young people thrive. We also need to change how children move. Childhood is the time when muscles are building, limbs are lengthening and healthy habits for life are formed.

Our own childhood memories are centered on daily physical education in school and playing in the yard until the sun went down. Unfortunately, today, American children are moving less than past generations.

Experts recommend that children get 60 minutes of physical activity each day, yet only one in three is actually achieving this, and about 15% of kids report getting no physical activity at all. Given these startling facts, it is not surprising to learn that there is no federal law that requires physical education in American schools and that only six states require physical education in every grade.

Our children are on the move so little each day that even adding 10 minutes would make a tremendous difference.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is launching the #Commit2Ten campaign to ask everyone — not just children, but all of us — to add an additional 10 minutes of physical activity to our day. Take an evening walk with your kids, try a new exercise at the gym, walk with a colleague to lunch, or park a little farther away than you need to. The extra activity may seem small, but the consequences are enormous.

We owe it to the next generation to stop making excuses. Let’s join together by moving more and building a healthier generation.

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