September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month – and few political figures care more about the issue than first lady Michelle Obama.
The first lady has spent the last six years using the power of the East Wing to help parents and kids get healthy, and in an exclusive Q&A with AOL.com she discusses the health “wake-up call” she and her husband received years ago, talks about how they stay fit today and shares her tips for parents working hard to keep their families healthy.
AOL.com: Childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have recently started to decline after decades of growth. What do you think has changed in America that’s driving that shift?
First lady Michelle Obama: I think we’re seeing a new conversation in this country about how we live and eat, and through my Let’s Move! initiative, we’ve been working with leaders from every sector of our society – parents, educators, business leaders, elected officials, faith leaders, athletes and others – to help families make healthier choices.
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So many people have stepped up on behalf of our kids: Communities are redesigning public spaces – building bike paths, refurbishing playgrounds, cleaning up public parks – so kids have safe places to play. Food and beverage companies and restaurants are cutting calories from their products and offering healthier kids’ menus. Schools and childcare centers are serving more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in their meals and snacks. Faith leaders are educating their congregations about healthy eating.
All of these changes have started to add up. But while our progress is promising, we are just beginning to move the needle on this issue. We can’t let up for a single minute, or we’ll be right back to where we started from.
AOL.com: How do you help make sure your daughters stay fit and healthy? Do you ever exercise with them or do you mostly cheer from the sidelines?
Michelle Obama: My husband and I make physical activity a priority in our lives, and our daughters love being active as well. And while we each have sports and activities we enjoy, we try to go for hikes or bike rides together whenever we get the chance.
We’ve found that the best way to help our girls be active is to find activities they truly enjoy. That way, being active is fun, and not a chore. For some kids, that may mean getting involved in a sports team at school or in a community league. Others may enjoy taking a walk at a nearby park, creating their own active games, or just turning on their favorite music and dancing in the living room.
AOL.com: We hear your husband loves broccoli, but have your daughters been blessed with a natural taste for good-for-you vegetables too? How can parents encourage kids to eat well if they don’t like so-called “healthy” food?
Michelle Obama: When our girls were young, Barack and I struggled to juggle the demands of our jobs with the needs of our family, and we didn’t always take the time to prepare healthy meals. It got to the point where our pediatrician pulled me aside and recommended that we make some changes in how we were eating.
That was a real wake-up call for us, and we immediately started eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, watching our portions, and eating less take-out. This wasn’t always easy, and there was some occasional grumbling as we adjusted to a new way of eating. But we found that eating meals together as a family was hugely helpful because Barack and I could set an example by modeling healthy eating for our girls. We also made sure to have healthy snacks – like fruits and vegetables – out on the counter or on an easily-reachable shelf in the fridge. Finally, we found that getting our girls involved in preparing meals helped get them excited about trying new foods.
In the end, it’s all about patience and persistence – you often have to expose a child to a new food numerous times before he or she will begin to like it. So keep trying!
AOL.com: Who are the role models you look up to when it comes to healthy living and parenting?
Michelle Obama: My mother has always been such an important role model for me. Back when my girls were very young, and I was running myself ragged trying to care for them and handle the demands of my career, my mother pulled me aside and told me that if I wasn’t there for myself, I wouldn’t be able to be there for anyone else. She was absolutely right. To be a good parent, you need to take care of yourself so that you can have the physical and emotional energy to take care of your family. I try to remember that lesson every day, and every day, I thank my lucky stars that my mom lives with us in the White House today!
AOL.com: How would you advise a parent who is concerned about their child’s weight strike the delicate balance between encouraging a healthy weight and a healthy body image?
Michelle Obama: Being healthy isn’t about inches, pounds, or how kids look – it’s about how they feel and making sure they feel good about themselves. So rather than focusing on appearance, it’s important to emphasize to kids that when we eat healthy food and stay active, we feel better, and we can perform better in everything we do, from athletics to academics. It also helps to get kids involved in meal planning and preparation, create games out of trying new foods, and provide ample opportunities for physical activity, recognizing it may take some time to find an activity they truly enjoy.