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Sedentary kids called to action in national campaign

Commentary: Food makers, regulators, heart drugs, more

By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

Hey, kids, "verb" is no longer something you'll hear about just in English class. Today, the government is launching a $190 million national campaign to promote physical activity and other positive activities for 9- to 13-year-olds. It's called "VERB: It's What You Do."

The message is simple: Verbs are active and kids should be too, so pick your favorite verb — run, skip, swim, dance, play, volunteer, join clubs — and do it.

"Too many of our children are sitting around, and their inactivity is leading to serious health problems such as overweight, obesity and diabetes," says Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. "Our kids need to be kids and be active. We need to get our children away from PlayStation and onto the playground."

Mike Greenwell of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which spearheaded the campaign, says organizers wanted to make it fun for kids. "We learned when we were planning the campaign that kids can smell a lesson a mile off. If they think it's a campaign to tell them what to do and what not to do, they won't be interested."

The project comes amid these startling statistics:

In 1999, 13% of children and adolescents were overweight.

One-fourth of children in America spend four hours or more a day watching television, and only 27% of high school students engage in moderate physical activity at least 30 minutes a day on five or more days of the week.

Three-quarters of overweight and obese 9- to 13-year-olds do not change their habits and remain overweight and obese in adulthood.

Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in young people, a trend unheard of a decade ago.

Although the campaign officially begins today, short TV commercials promoting the VERB campaign started to air in June. The current ads feature action verbs morphing into a child's form.

Longer ads out this fall will show real kids doing activities. Also coming this fall: ads on billboards, the radio and in print, including magazines such as Teen People and Sports Illustrated for Kids.

The TV commercials for kids will air after school, during prime time and on weekends during children's programming. Print ads aimed at parents will be released this fall.
The campaign also includes stops in at least nine cities on Nickelodeon's Wild and Crazy Kids Tour. There will be school-based promotions across the country, with messages on book jackets, school lunch menus and Channel One. America Online has developed a Web site ( for the effort. Special commercials and promotions have been created for children from various ethnic backgrounds.

"The part that is most exciting is that we had the resources to compete with the kind of research that companies do to promote commercial products like a new toy or new cereal," Greenwell says.

Lisa Mills of Frankel, a Chicago marketing group that worked on the project, says VERB is a brand.

"This is selling a product, but the product isn't something on the shelf in the grocery store," Mills says. "The product is an invitation to kids to be social and try all kinds of positive activities and decide what they like."

Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group, says, "We think this is one of the most innovative and important programs to reduce childhood obesity." But she adds, "It's a real shame that the administration zeroed it out of its 2003 budget. Now it's up to Congress to restore the funding."

© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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