The new year has brought with it renewed pledges to make 2012 the year we finally take on the childhood obesity epidemic. (See an earlier post about the controversial new tactics officials in Georgia are trying out.)

“I know that recognizing the joy of the outdoors at that early age was probably the biggest reason that my major fitness overhaul wasn’t something I have had to start from scratch since,” says Max Greenberg. (James Brosher/AP)

For him, it’s also a personal mission. Greenberg used to be an obese child.

Below, he shares his own story about how he traversed (literally) from sedentary kid to outdoor enthusiast and how his transformation was aided by some gentle parental encouragement. The word “gentle” was the key element, he argues, suggesting a parent’s heavy-handed approach is often a cause, not a solution, to the problem.

He also offers information about broader efforts to turn the obesity trend. What better time to do it than in 2012?

“This month, for what seems like the 27th straight year, my New Year’s resolution was to trim some flab and get in shape. That’s pretty common, but it’s a far cry from my earlier weight struggles.

As a kid, I took solace in food and led a mostly sedentary life. This landed me well north of 200 pounds sometime after middle school. Year after year, my parents plied me with rewards, begged, occasionally threatened — to no avail.

It eventually took many hours of focused exercise (and countless uneaten cupcakes) to shed that dangerous weight. But a much subtler change in behavior ensured that, while I might periodically struggle in years to come, I wouldn’t get myself into serious health trouble ever again. In short, I discovered the ‘Be Out There’ ethic.

I had always been a lover of nature, but my entrée to the environment was animal books. Being shy and overweight, this meant hours holed up in my room, devouring facts about Komodo dragons and giant squid. I spent lots [of] time in the backyard and loved it, but was not truly an outdoorsy kid. This was as big a factor as any in my weight problem: I just wasn’t ‘out there’ enough.

I eventually captured the inherent delight of sky, sunlight and fresh air. I didn’t do that in one day; it took many hikes along the Billy Goat Trail and basic romps in neighborhood parks. My mother was an active participant, though never interfering. She answered my chatter about millipedes and always made me feel like I was leading the expedition.

I know that recognizing the joy of the outdoors at that early age was probably the biggest reason that my major fitness overhaul wasn’t something I have had to start from scratch since.

Unstructured outdoor play is an important complement to more focused exercise, building habits where youth soccer practice — which usually ends when one’s youth soccer career ends — might not. A study published in the September edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed adult supervision may actually lower the likelihood of physical activity (adult safety concerns tend to put a damper on kids and inhibit freedom) and that, for the youngest children, more organized play may mean less total activity.

About 13 million U.S. children and adolescents are obese like I was, and the percentage of young people who are obese has approximately tripled since 1980. Now, a broad campaign backed by environmental organizations like my group, National Wildlife Federation, to the YMCA to the Defeat Diabetes Foundation, is mounting an offensive against the indoor, TV-bound childhood that feeds that trend.

It supports the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act that Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) recently introduced to encourage state, local and federal strategies to connect youth and families with the outdoors.

It’s important to remember that getting outside has manifold benefits and, as the former face of a scary problem, attacking childhood obesity stands out.”

Max Greenberg can be reached at