First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, launched on February 9, 2010, initially closely fit what obesity research data calls for, with its focus on children and its attention to exercise and better eating (rather than dieting), including its very title, “Let’s Move.”  At the launch, the first lady announced four major areas of focus: providing parents with the resources and education they need to make informed healthy decisions for their kids, providing healthy food in schools, improving access to healthy affordable foods, and increasing physical activity.

In May, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which was created at the launch of Let’s Move, unveiled its report entitled “Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity within a Generation,” which laid out 70 recommendations to help end childhood obesity in five categories (the four pillars laid out at the Let’s Move launch, and a fifth category, “Early Childhood,” focused on prenatal care and educating new parents about nutrition and physical activity). The First Lady described the report as a “road map” for Let’s Move.

The press, in reporting about the initiative, paid more mind to the diet elements than to the exercise ones.  We examined the articles published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post from February 9, 2010 (the announcement of the program) through October 2010 whose full text contained the phrases “Let’s Move” and “Michelle Obama.” Out of 42 results, we found that only 7 headlines mentioned physical activity or exercise, while 18 headlines mentioned food, diet, or nutrition (the remaining 17 headlines were neutral). These headlines include “Obama Administration Aims to Push Candy and Sugary Drinks Out of Schools,” “Can Michelle Obama Put America’s Children on a Diet?” and “Ridding Schools of Junk Food.”

In a direct response to Let’s Move, on May 18, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition of major food manufacturers, including Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo, announced a commitment to eliminate 1 trillion calories from their products by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by the end of 2015. Together, the companies supply over 20 percent of the food consumed in the U.S.

In June, the White House launched a national adopt-a-school program called Chefs Move to Schools, in which professional chefs (more than 1,000 had signed up at the time of the launch) work closely with school administrators and families to help overhaul school lunches and teach children and parents about healthy eating.

The Department of Agriculture initiated an online competition that challenged game designers to create online tools and games for kids that promote healthy foods and active lifestyles. The winners were announced in late September.

The child nutrition act (officially, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) was passed by Congress and signed by the President in December. The Act aimed to ensure food sold in schools met more rigorous nutritional guidelines, to increase the amount of money schools could be reimbursed for meals, and to expand the number of low-income students eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches.

Thus, as the program evolved, the focus turned to caloric intake and not expenditure.

We were unable to find much evidence about implementing the exercise parts of the Let’s Move initiative. This is particularly relevant because of the scaling back and cancellation of physical education classes due to budget cuts.  In 2006, only 3.8 percent of elementary schools, 7.9 percent of middle schools, and 2.1 percent of high schools provided the minimum level of weekly physical activity as recommended by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (150 minutes per week for elementary-school-aged children and 225 minutes per week for middle and high school students).

Only eight states require that students take physical education every year from first through twelfth grade. 22 states (43 percent) allow required physical education credits to be earned through online courses. Less than one-third of all children ages 6-17 engage in “vigorous activity” (physical activity for at least 20 minutes that makes the child sweat and breathe hard).

One cannot help but wonder how and why a program that started so well is leaning so heavily in one direction, when it would do much better if it moved on both legs.