Paul Pierce

Have a ball

Getting kids into healthy activities is not just for fun — it’s a winning way to fight obesity

By Paul Pierce
November 25, 2010

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BACK IN junior high school, kids called me chubby, which was a little better than roly-poly, but not much. When I hit high school, I started taking advantage of basketball sessions at my school’s gym.

I worked on my game, getting better — and in much better shape. I played every day with other kids who thought basketball was fun. Good friends, great coaches, and two older brothers who earned college athletic scholarships all helped me develop a skill that carried me all the way to the NBA.

Based on my experience, I know you can’t just scold kids about being healthy and staying fit. When it comes to beating childhood obesity, kids need to tap into something they care about. Everybody knows that staying active and eating right is the way to get healthy, but making a difference in the lives of millions of children means connecting with them on their level.

There are a lot of ways to connect with them. Through my FitClub34 initiative and foundation The Truth on Health, we have come up with some ideas that work. For example, I turned my fan club into a “fit club’’ that gives youths a chance to combine physical activity with their love of sports, competition, or anything that’s fun and gets them moving.

We also give them an activity watch to help them track their physical activity. They can earn points for staying active, log on to record their points, and win some cool prizes — an iPod, a Wii, or an autographed Celtics jersey. Any kid can understand the message — have fun, get active, earn points, and win stuff.

We also encourage kids watching a basketball game on television to get off the couch and into the action by doing five jumping jacks, squats, or push-ups for every foul shot, dunk, or rebound in the game. They not only get exercise, they get more points and chances for prizes.

Kids aren’t stupid. A solid anti-obesity message isn’t enough — we need to get it across to them in ways they respect and trust. They respond better when they learn it can be easy to eat well and fun to be physically active — especially when they see that weight loss is real. Think about it. Are kids more likely to stick to a plan of walking 30 minutes after dinner or having dessert twice a week? Or trying to lose a certain number of pounds?

By focusing on how important healthier living is to kids’ lives today, more are likely to see getting healthy as something exciting rather than an impossible chore. We succeed by helping kids arrange active play dates for bike riding, football, and capture the flag. We urge youths to make fitness a family affair, so they can compete against a sibling or take on Mom or Dad.

Too many kids don’t get the chance to eat healthy or exercise. Everybody knows the reasons — stretched family budgets, overworked parents, and reduced funding for parks and physical education. So the challenge of childhood obesity has grown. Fortunately, so has awareness of the issue, largely thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!’’ campaign. More people are becoming aware of the need for energy balance — fewer calories in through healthy eating, and more calories out through physical activity.

This formula is getting some traction in schools, largely through the work of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition of companies, NGOs, and other organizations.

We’re learning a lot about how to encourage kids to pursue energy balance. Above all, we know the right amount of encouragement and that will make a big difference. Kids will listen and make better choices to be healthy if they truly believe that it’s fun and doable.

Take it from the one-time chubby kid on the block: the solution to childhood obesity isn’t a lecture. The answer is support and encouragement that shows kids the immediate benefit of a healthier lifestyle and how much fun they can have along the way. The truth is that kids might try to get in shape because they have to, but they’re much more likely to succeed because they want to.

Paul Pierce is captain of the Boston Celtics, founder of the Truth on Health Initiative, and a partner of the Healthy Weight Commitment.