Shaq Takes on Childhood Obesity

Personal Health

NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal is using his super-sized (7-foot 1 inch, 325 pounds) persona, his credibility as a four-time NBA champion, and the platform of a reality TV series to launch a "Shaq Attack" on the nation's childhood obesity epidemic.

In "Shaq's Big Challenge" six "dangerously obese" Broward County, Florida middle school children spend six months shedding pounds, improving their eating habits, and, if the first two shows are any indication, learning -- the hard way -- to exercise. In the role of motivator-in-chief, O'Neal has assembled his own "dream team" of doctors, trainers, coaches and nutritionists to work with his recruits. Given the enormity of the mental and physical challenges these children face, they will need the team's expertise and support.

My boys (ages 8 and 4), rabid NBA fans, were begging to watch "Shaq's show." And superstar that he is, Shaq didn't disappoint. He had them from the first scene. After watching the kids struggle with their fitness test, my little one spent the rest of the night doing push-ups. And they've both been asking to watch some more. What's most appealing about the series is Shaq's easy -- and sometimes goofy -- way with the boys and girls. He has six children of his own, and is a bit of a big kid himself. (In one scene, he advises Walter, who is being teased at school, to "go punch those boys right in the face." Then, almost in slow motion, we see the adult take over. Shaq pauses, shakes his head, and then takes it back). The program also offers a fascinating glimpse into the ways in which well-intentioned and clearly loving parents both deny the seriousness of the problem, and enable unhealthy behavior, even after Shaq's dream team intervenes.

In terms of the show's approach to physical fitness, I would have preferred to see a little less boot camp and a bit more emphasis on the mind-body connection. But hey, it's only week two, and they've all got a lot to learn.

In his battle against childhood obesity, O'Neal is thinking big. His ultimate goal is to create a fitness plan for Florida -- where the State Department of Health estimates 25 percent of children are obese or at risk of becoming obese -- that can serve as a model for the entire country. On Shaq's to-do list: push Florida to implement mandatory physical education courses for middle school and high school students. As of now, it's offered in only six percent of schools. "That's disgusting!" says Shaq. I caught up with O'Neal briefly by email the day he met with Florida's Governor, Charlie Crist, at a rally for 500 students to encourage children and young adults to adopt healthy eating habits and daily physical activity.

Willow Bay: In the first show, a doctor says of you, "He cares. That's the key, he cares." Why did you take on this issue in such a personal way? And why tackle childhood obesity with a TV series?

Shaquille O'Neal: When I first saw the data that indicated how serious the issue of childhood obesity is, I knew that I had to get involved. First, as a parent, and as someone who has always had a special connection with young people, I was amazed at the current health trends. If I can in any way be a part of making things better for kids -- who are our future -- then I felt like I had a responsibility to do that. The television show hopefully is a good way to take the message directly to people in the comfort of their homes.

WB: How bad is the problem? And how do the children you are working with on the show reflect that?

SO: Here are the statistics that jumped out at me: This is the first generation predicted to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Childhood obesity numbers have tripled in the last 20 years in the US; and nearly one-third of U.S. children, 25 million of them, are overweight or nearly overweight. The kids in the show are great kids. Their health challenges result from the same things that affect kids around the country -- they are basically inactive, and they eat unhealthy foods in disproportionate amounts. The reasons why they are inactive or eat unhealthily may vary, and you see some of that in the show.

WB: You say, "In each kid I see a little bit of myself." That's hard for us to imagine; what do you see in them that feels familiar to you?

SO: Well, first, I was always bigger than kids my age, so I understand what it feels like to be separated by size. And if it wasn't for athletics, I very well may have been an obese kid. But I also saw how some of these kids felt like outsiders. For them, it was because their self-esteem was affected by how they looked or how other kids treated them based on how they looked. In my life, I often felt like an outsider for various reasons -- whether it was moving around a lot as a military kid, my size, whatever.

WB: We all have our weakness when it comes to food, what's yours?

SO: Sandwiches. I have to watch the carb intake.

WB: Any surprises for you in all of this?

SO: Yes. I didn't realize that it would be so hard. You read the statistics and you hear stuff, but getting involved with a real group of kids and their families shows you all of the complexities. I brought in a great team of experts, because we needed to address this in a thorough way.

WB: What kind of impact do you hope to have ... on these children and others?

SO: I just hope that I can help them and families across the country live healthier lives. I'm just one person doing a small part. I can't solve childhood obesity. It will take parents, guardians, school boards and children themselves to reverse the trends. I'm just hoping to get the message out, along with some useful information that may make it easier.

"Shaq's Big Challenge" airs Tuesdays (9:00-10:00 p.m., ET) on ABC.

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