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Obesity and TV: Lift That Remote, and Bend and…

In one of those classic Hollywood moments, I was introduced to an attractive woman at a party. She turned out to be a personal trainer. After sizing me up, she delivered the pitch: "You know," she said, "I'd really like to train you."

I was tempted to ask, "To do what?" But I knew what she meant. She saw a doughy guy who says he exercises semi-regularly and thought she could deliver smashing results merely by firming up the dough a bit.

Sadly, the challenge might be beyond a trainer's limited powers, or even those of a "life coach," whatever that is. Because, while stomach crunches and fewer blueberry muffins might indeed transform me like those old ads on comic books, they won't resolve another problem: namely, the three hours a day or so I spend on my butt watching screener tapes.

Moreover, my sedentary habits are representative of an increasingly bloated U.S. population, which has seized on gee-whiz gadgetry—from computers to games to wall-encompassing TV screens—that has turned the average "couch potato" into a "couch burger, fries and a shake."

Granted, I get paid to sit around and watch television, but most of us don't—especially the growing number of obese children in this country.

Nick News' Linda Ellerbee addressed this issue in her special Look Before You Eat, which aired last weekend. It engaged kids about nutrition without tackling the threat posed by planting themselves in front of Nickelodeon for hours on end.

We're a society that tends to like simple answers, or sensational solutions that can be easily conveyed in a May sweeps mini-documentary. So when it comes to obesity, most of the discourse settles on big, fat targets.

Fast food is an obvious one, as deftly skewered in the award-winning movie Super Size Me.
Even the new chairman of Coca-Cola recently acknowledged that his industry must overcome its image problems, though he quickly shuffled much of the blame to insufficient "energy balance" and the need for more physical activity.

The American Psychological Association, meanwhile, has gone after kids advertising. In February, the group urged that commercials be restricted among children under the age of 8, who are "unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased." (From what I've seen, 18- to 34-year-olds have the same problem, given some of the so-called reality shows that appeal to that demographic.)

Like Nickelodeon, ABC News (which highlighted obesity on news programs the week of May 30) has weighed in on this issue, and both deserve credit for biting the companies that feed them. Not surprisingly, though, you seldom hear TV make the case for watching less television, and no kids worthy of the name would be caught dead sitting through public-service announcements urging such restraint anyway.

No. That thankless task usually falls to groups like TV-Turnoff Network, which orchestrates an annual "Turn off the set" week, trying to inspire families to do out-of-character things like venture outside or interact with each other. Each year, the group claims victory and touts how many people tuned out, despite not a shred of evidence (check the Nielsens, gang) that anyone is paying the slightest attention.

The primary deficiency in all these well-intentioned efforts is the banality of common sense. Few rational people would eat

McDonald's for breakfast, lunch and dinner unless they were out to make a point, as was Super Size Me
director Morgan Spurlock. The truth is, a burger here or there won't kill you, just as there's nothing wrong with kids watching some TV and even (horrors) seeing some commercials.

Preaching moderation, however, doesn't command much time on the 6 o'clock news. So people stunt and gripe, doing everything but proposing reasonable limits that understand that children can indulge now and then without turning into the German kid from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The one chilling statistic involves whether modern parents have the stomach to curb kids' consumption of media or anything else. Despite the supposed outrage over indecency, a survey last fall by Knowledge Networks/SRI (pre-Boobgate, admittedly) found that children's bedrooms are "media havens." More than 60% of 8- to 17-year-olds have their own TV sets. In addition, kids are adept at multitasking while they watch, with "eating" among the favorite secondary activities.

Foes of fat frequently offer tough-love advice like "Put down the fork" or "Push yourself away from the table," which is fair enough. Still, I suspect a lot of people, myself included, would probably benefit as much if someone would hide the remote control.