A lesson in spinning health facts from a past president

Any time a current or past president makes comments about health my ears perk up. Health doesn’t always enjoy such a prominent spot in the limelight compared to issues like jobs and the economy.

But there is one health issues that’s attracted the attention and political muscle of the current President, and former President Bill Clinton: childhood obesity. The First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative has helped elevate a national conversation on the issue, and is challenging policymakers, business leaders, and all Americans to take action. In his partnership-brokering role with the Clinton Foundation, Clinton has helped orchestrate a number of high-level initiatives around obesity prevention, including the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership with the American Heart Association, now entering its 11th year.

Clinton and current AHA CEO Nancy Brown recently wrote in CNN about the next phase of the Alliance’s work, and where we should focus or efforts in the future to address childhood obesity.

Much like the Let’s Move initiative, the Alliance is shying away from major battles with food and beverage corporations in favor of the less debated (and industry supported) need for more physical activity. The line is pretty common in obesity circles: kids and youth today are overweight and obese because they don’t move or exercise as much as before.

In the CNN article by Clinton and Brown they confidently state, “Unfortunately, today, American children are moving less than past generations.”

The research, on the other hand, tells a different story. A 2009 review by researchers at Johns Hopkins found that physical activity levels of teens hasn’t really changed much over the past few decades. Other research by the highly respected Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found that Americans are actually exercising more now than a decade ago, and that diet is likely to play the more prominent role is weight loss. In fact, even commonly held assumptions about Western cultures, including the US, expending less energy in a day compared to traditional hunter-gatherer populations doesn’t hold up. A 2012 study comparing the two groups found no difference.

Now, beyond the misleading conclusion that obesity is the result of just being less physically active, the President committed another reporting no-no. The reference he uses to back up the claim doesn’t even provide data relevant to the argument he’s trying to make.

Going back to the comment, Clinton and Brown state, “Unfortunately, today, American children are moving less than past generations.” Now, if you go to the linked report – the Physical Activity Council’s 2015 Participation Report – you won’t find any data comparing overall physical activity levels between the current generation and past generations.

The report does present longitudinal data on physical activity trends among Americans ages 6 and older. It also dis-aggregates the data by age, a helpful visual showing how physical activity generally declines with age. But, the time period presented is from 2009-2014. That’s hardly a generation.

So, what’s the take-away? Two things.

First, if you’re going to make an argument about the causes of obesity or what we need to do about it, supporting those arguments with relevant science is fundamental.

Second, let’s make sure science and research is always what guides our efforts. It may challenge us, but that’s a good thing. That’s what it’s suppose to do. But the only way we are going to make progress is if we’re allow ourselves to loosen our grip on deeply held beliefs to consider other possibilities.

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