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To Health With Fun? Bring on the Epidemic!

Up to a point, we professionals are quite right to note how hard getting to health can be through the obstacle course of the modern day -- for adults and children alike. But there is another story to tell about health, and it is fun. It's all about fun.
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I was at the White House recently, for the 2012 Easter Egg Roll.

Before I get any credit I don't deserve for being among the chosen few invited to perform, I hasten to add I was there essentially as the unofficial photographer to the backup dancers for the invited act. The back-up dancers were three of my children. The main act was Kellee McQuinn, founder of KidTribe.

Kellee is a phenomenal performer, director, producer, and all-around force of nature.

She and I met not long ago when participating in a TEDx event for Mindstream Academy. We decided shortly thereafter to collaborate on a project funded by my non-profit, Turn the Tide Foundation, and tentatively called "Vitality Rap." The program will deliver empowering, inspiring, and surprising health messages to tweens and teens using music videos as the delivery vehicle -- with links to actionable programs that enable them to put their new awareness to work. The initial offering -- "Unjunk Yourself" -- is now in production, and got its pre-production premiere on the South Lawn of the White House.

Kellee and KidTribe were invited back to the Easter Egg Roll for the third year in a row, and after watching Kellee's performances (with, if I am allowed to express the potentially biased view of a parent, the very able back-up performances of my kids!) -- I can see why. She is an engaging, high-energy performer, and can do things with a hula-hoop that truly seem to defy gravity. My own efforts with a hula-hoop, in contrast, serve only to confirm that gravity is totally in charge.

Kellee reports going down two dress sizes as a by-product of her virtuoso hula-hooping. She also states -- with the kind of conviction that makes you believe it must be true -- that vigorous hula-hooping for 10 minutes burns the same calories as running a mile. I'm looking for the report of that randomized trial, and will get back to you when I find it. But for now, let's take it on faith.

Here's the part for which faith is not required, because I offer a firsthand account: What Kellee and KidTribe did on the White House South Lawn was highly contagious.

With each of the many performances throughout the day -- to sequential, lottery-winning crowds of roughly 6,000 Easter Egg Roll guests at a time -- a forest of hula-hoops was strewn across the lawn. The music began. Kellee -- with Valerie, Natalia, and Gabriel -- took to the stage. The hoopla commenced.

And then, inevitably, one by one, two by two, and group by group, people picked up the hoops. They shook, they shimmied, and in many cases, they hooped quite admirably. Few, I confess with some chagrin, were as hopeless as I. (I plan to keep my day job...)

But even those who couldn't hoop -- or didn't get a hoop -- danced alongside those who could, and did. Young, old; lean, heavy; adept, and not so much. They were all moving, and loving it.

And there were no hoops to jump through. There was no cajoling, coaxing, or coercion. There was no hullabaloo. Just fun, on public display. Just the up-side of peer pressure. A contagion of hip-swinging, calorie-burning fun.

Often -- too often, perhaps -- we clinicians, researchers, and public health practitioners speak of health as if it requires jumping through hoops. And in many ways, of course, it does.

Eating well in the modern world is hard. We are surrounded by a wide array of tempting food choices of suspect influence on health. We are exposed to the constant goad of food marketing. We may well be subject to foods willfully engineered to ensure that we "can't eat just one."

We are, as well, beneficiaries of ever more technology that does all the things that muscles used to do. We are victims of increasingly hectic schedules that squeeze physical activity out of the daily routine of adults and children alike.

And we confront these modern challenges with a Stone Age physiology perfectly suited for an entirely different world. A world in which calories were relatively scarce and hard to get, and physical activity -- called survival -- was unavoidable. Everybody did it every day.

We find ourselves in a modern world in which physical activity is scarce and hard to get, and calories are unavoidable. And with no native defenses against caloric excess or the lure of the couch -- never having needed them before. So we are all too readily undone by this foreign, toxic, modern world of our own devising.

Jumping from where we are to the native conditions of the Stone Age to which we are adapted involves one heck of a hoop!

We professionals also tend to talk about the costs of not making that leap. I tell this tale routinely, both on the page and at the podium.

It is a tale of epidemic obesity among adults and children alike. It is a story of the transformation of adult-onset diabetes into a pediatric epidemic of Type 2. It is a story of proliferating cardiac risk factors in ever-younger people. It is even a story of a rising rates of stroke in 5- to 14-year-olds. It is not a fun story. It is a story that might even imply: To hell with fun!

Up to a point, we professionals are quite right to note how hard getting to health can be through the obstacle course of the modern day -- for adults and children alike. We are right to report, and repeat, the dire consequences of poor use of forks and inadequate use of feet that constitute the status quo. We are right to clamor for changes in both programming and policies to help pave the way so that health might be diverted from the road far too seldom taken, to a path of lesser resistance.

But there is another story to tell about health, and it is fun. It's all about fun. The antidote for "to hell with fun" may just be: To health, with fun!

Healthy people have more fun. People having fun might accidentally get healthy. We can get health in the pursuit of pleasure, and pleasure in the pursuit of health. Peer pressure can have an up-side!

The fun story is what I saw on the South Lawn of the White House. I was invigorated and inspired by what I saw -- and hope that with words and pictures, I can to convey some small measure of that infectious energy.

Getting to health can seem like jumping through hoops. But do the hula with one, and you see a very different picture. Have fun -- put it on display in front of some kids, your own or anyone else's -- and you will likely find yourself at the center of a movement. Make it fun that involves movement, and you will likely find yourself at the epicenter of not only infectious fun, but a contagion of health promotion as well.

Here's to that epidemic!


For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.

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For more on personal health, click here.