Willow Bay

Shaq Takes on Childhood Obesity

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.

Demystifying Estrogen Therapy

Like millions of others last week, I woke up to this headline on the front page of my paper: "Doctors Change Course on Estrogen Therapy." Here we go again! The 'science' behind hormone replacement therapy has put women on a medically engineered, press-fueled, big pharma funded roller coaster ride. When will there be a definitive answer to this question? After reading the article, and posting it on the Living Now page for all of you to take a look at, I did what many of you probably did; I called a doctor for advice.

Dr. Harry Lodge is a nationally recognized physician, on the medical faculty at Columbia University, and the author of two best-selling books: Younger Next Year, and Younger Next Year for Women. He writes frequently on health, science and public policy. He believes everyone can understand the medical and scientific issues affecting our lives and that America is ready for clear, substantial and informed discussions about the challenges and opportunities we all face together. Here's a transcript of our talk:

Willow Bay: What's the significance of this new study?

Dr. Lodge: We frequently hear about smaller studies like this one which are reported as 'major news'. But the 'big news' here is just a slight variation in the data.

This current study examines a very small subset of 1,000 women from the Women's Health Initiative who had had hysterectomies. It is a small piece of the equation. And it has to be viewed as that. Otherwise, it will leave you on a roller coaster that doesn't reflect the underlying science. If you follow every one of these small pieces of the puzzle, women will continue to get whipsawed about what they ought to do about hormone replacement.

WB: So why is this front page news?

Dr. Lodge: There will be innumerable news cycles like this where a very small, nuanced issue will be presented as a major change in public policy. And there will be gross exaggerations. As you read the Los Angeles Times articles, one of the spokesmen for Wyeth said, "Oh great, this means women can safely take hormones for decades." Give me a break!

WB: So can you read between the lines here and maybe even re-write the headline?

Dr. Lodge: Sure, the bottom line here is that hormone therapy is a very low-risk thing to do, but there is almost certainly some risk involved. If you need hormones to deal with specific symptoms of menopause, you can accept the small downside. But if you don't have a clear need for it, don't take it.

We do have a sizeable amount of data on hormone replacement therapy from the Women's Health Initiative, an extremely large-scale study of 160,000 women that cost more than $600 million dollars. That's the kind of scale you need to get real answers to basic biological questions. What that data tells us is that there are both slight benefits and slight risks for women from hormone replacement. Women can get relief from the symptoms of menopause from these drugs, but they won't get any real health benefits from them. And again, there is a small risk. So, clearly, if it took 160,000 women to find the very small risks and benefits in the larger study, the information from this tiny subset (less than 1% of the total) is not going to change the overall picture at all.

You can run as many studies as you want and you will get slight variations. That is the way a huge amount of medical reporting is done in America. You take a very small absolute difference and report that.

With each release of new, small studies like this one you can argue endlessly about those variations -- whether there is a tiny risk or tiny benefit. My personal bias is that you should only use medicines when there is a clear benefit. The best studies done so far show there is a very slight negative.

WB: So what is your advice to women?

Dr. Lodge: You can and should expect news cycles like this in which small studies are presented as major change. I think one of the messages for women and health care consumers in general is there is very little medical news of a major risk or benefit.

If I were a woman I would say, "Thank God there is a medicine that helps with symptoms if I need it. Unfortunately it doesn't do anything long term to benefit me. And then you're done. You never have to revisit the issue again.

And that should be the outcome of this, to say to American women, "Relax. Hormones are not a good idea from a health perspective. They are not something you should be taking. But they seem to be safe or very low risk, so if you need to take them for symptoms, go ahead."

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