Messaging, Pseudo-Statistics, and Childhood Obesity Prevention
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A column by Rick Osbourne
I received an email recently praising the virtues of a childhood obesity prevention program known as “5,4,3,2,1, Go” which, in an effort to reduce childhood obesity and related problems, encourages kids to eat better and exercise more. I wrote back asking the sender if they’d ever seen any HARD EVIDENCE that 5,4,3,2,1 Go works? Did it actually reduce childhood obesity in communities where it was being used?
I received a prompt reply which included three links that were intended to answer my question. I clicked on the links and scoured them in an effort to find any references to a reduction in BMI or percentage of body fat…any before and after measurements indicating that a reduction in body fat was achieved. But as you might expect, I found nothing of the kind.
Pseudo Statistics Anyone?
What I found instead was plenty of soft, pseudo statistics (numbers that sound official but say nothing of consequence).* These stats were made up of surveys in which kids SAID they were eating better and exercising more. There were surveys of teachers who SAID they liked the program, it was easy to present, and how much the kids liked it. But there were NO REFERENCES to Percentages of Body Fat or Body Composition. There weren’t even any references to BMI changes. None!
You might wonder, why not? After all we’re spending millions if not billions trying to put an end to this ongoing epidemic right? And here’s a well-funded, program that’s being promoted by numerous entities around the nation, yet nobody bothers to measure kids before and after so they could tell if this program actually works? What happened to DATA DRIVEN? What happened to EVIDENCE based?
Public Relations and Messaging…
My own take on this question is it has to do with the fact that most of the entities working in the childhood obesity prevention field are dominated by public relations people and advertising execs who actually think that by promoting a cutesy acronym they can TALK kids into eating better and exercising more.
For them it’s all about “MESSAGING” (a modern term for “TALK”). After all, the fast food and the video gaming industries have TALKED kids into eating poorly and exercising less. With the right “message” why can’t they TALK kids out of it?”
There are several problems with this kind of thinking starting with the fact that over the past decade we’ve tried to “message” the problem into submission and we’ve failed miserably. There’s also the fact that the fast food and video gaming industries have been “messaging” for over four decades so they have a major league head start.
And finally, the fast food folks and the video gamers have a lot more money than the 501C3 not for profits will ever have, so they can indoctrinate kids in ways that the NFP’s will never duplicate. In other words, this strategy was doomed from the very start.
In any case, the sooner we replace PR pros with exercise physiologists, messaging/talk with hands-on action, and soft, pseudo statistics with cold, hard evidence, the sooner we’ll start making actual progress on beating childhood obesity. But until then, don’t hold your breath.
*By the way, 5,4,3,2,1, Go is not the only program that’s totally dependent on pseudo statistics. ALMOST ALL the major players in this field justify themselves and their expenditures in exactly the same way. I hereby CHALLENGE ANY READER to go to any one of their websites and find any HARD EVIDENCE that their programs have any impact on obesity whatsoever. The cynic in me wonders if these folks really want to solve the problem. Are the profits too large? Is the status quo too powerful?
Rick Osbourne is former physical educator and a pioneer in the field of functional childhood obesity prevention. He currently serves as President of the Pull Your Own Weight Foundation which is an Illinois based, 501c3, not for profit organization whose focus is functional childhood obesity prevention. He’s written and published three books in this field, the latest of which is entitled Beating Childhood Obesity Now: A Simple Solution for Parents and Educators. He’s the Examiner’s national childhood obesity prevention correspondent. He writes an online column for The Edvocate. And you can connect with Rick via Twitter, Linkedin, or Facebook