Michelle Obama shares the emotions behind her movement to boost kids' health

(Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010

First lady Michelle Obama sits in an upholstered armchair in her East Wing office, a generous bowl of fresh apples on a nearby table. She wears a body-conscious gray sleeveless sheath with an artful corsage of matching fabric decorating the right shoulder. A petite Georgetown student -- one of the young ladies from the White House mentoring program Obama established last year -- quietly observes as the first lady discusses the role physical fitness played in her Chicago girlhood.

The tableau contains all the elements that have defined Obama's time in the White House: youth outreach, distinctive style, healthful food and fitness. Of all these, nutrition and physical activity are key to the legacy Obama would like to leave. They're essential to her national rallying cry to end the crisis of childhood obesity in a generation.

Obama launched her sweeping initiative, Let's Move, in an early February publicity surge that had her discussing "food deserts" and the urgency of clearer labeling. She lobbied the National Governors Association before its members partied at the White House. She visited schools and at a Philadelphia grocery store pulled out a $20 bill to buy a banana-strawberry smoothie. The statistics she has repeated are both jarring and daunting: One in three children is overweight or obese. The dollars she has proposed the federal government dedicate to the dilemma are significant: at least $10 billion over 10 years.

Most of the attention has focused on the nutrition part of the equation -- thanks in large part to her vegetable garden that took on astonishing international significance. Let's Move aims to make wide-ranging improvements to the eating habits of a food-addled society. Fitness is a less discussed, yet crucial, piece of her initiative. She will unveil the details of a comprehensive fitness agenda in the coming weeks.

"If kids are naturally active, they shouldn't have to worry about what they eat. That's how it was when we were growing up. Nobody talked to you about nutrition. You ate your vegetables. You ate what was on your plate. And you went outside and played. There wasn't a need for structured activity," she says in an interview in her office. "The physical education piece is about exploring that. In our nation, what happened? What have been the cultural trends that have led us away from that regular exercise and activity that kids used to get?"

The days when children came home from school and went outside to play until the streetlights came on aren't coming back, Obama acknowledges. She wants to lead the way in finding contemporary, healthy traditions.

"How do we answer the questions or give solutions or approaches to parents in all different kinds of communities?" she asks. "There are going to be kids who can't just go out and play. They're home alone or their neighborhoods aren't safe. . . . Or what about families that are living out in rural areas where they don't have a car and can't go to the local soccer field?"

"We have to decide as a nation that physical activity and nutrition and all that stuff is just as important as test scores and good grades, textbooks and everything else we make the trade-off for," she says. Failure to make those things a priority "can kill our kids."

A different time

Growing up in Chicago, Obama was a self-described "tall, lanky, crazy-skinny kid." She has never had to battle the scale in significant ways. As a child, her daily routine included dashing outside after school, where she rode her bicycle, played tag and jumped double Dutch.

"In my mind, I still picture the neighborhood where we played," she says. "You'd maybe take a break and sit on the stoop or run inside to get water, but you were doing that just to get it done because you didn't want to miss out on anything."

"If I'm more reflective, because my father had multiple sclerosis and physical movement wasn't a given for him, as I talk to my brother now, neither one of us took our physical fitness for granted. We knew our father was a jock when he grew up -- he boxed -- and to see him go from that so quickly, without any warning, to someone who couldn't walk without crutches, you don't take that for granted. I don't think my father ever did."

The first lady offers a full-throated recollection of that period in her life, the words tumbling out at full speed. Physical activity wasn't a matter of dutiful exercise; it wasn't scheduled. It was family time with her father.

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