How Montgomery County experts-and one extraordinary teen-are working to combat childhood obesity.
By his own admission, Hunter Lussi used to be a fat kid. From the time he was a toddler, he had a burgeoning belly and chubby cheeks, and “he was at the top of the weight charts—at the 95th percentile,” recalls his dad, Craig. At school, Hunter was occasionally picked on for being fat, but the school put a quick end to the teasing and taunting.
What was more frustrating for Hunter was the fact that he came from a family of accomplished athletes who are naturally slim: His mom, Jeannette, was an all-state soccer and lacrosse player in high school and is now a serious triathlete; his younger sister and brother play travel soccer; and his dad, a former competitive figure skater, now does triathlons. Hunter’s grandfather, Craig M. Lussi, was an Olympic ski jumper for the United States in 1960, and his great-grandfather, Gustave Lussi, was instrumental in developing the modern sport of figure skating and coached some 300 national, Olympic and world champions.
That’s quite a legacy in the Kensington family, and early on, Hunter felt out of sync. “I’m the least coordinated person in this house,” admits Hunter, an earnest 16-year-old with bright eyes and a shy grin. “I’d do the same things my brother and sister…do—and I kept wondering why I was different, why I have a slow metabolism.” It’s true, his dad says: “When Hunter eats something, it stays with him. If he eats a cookie or a doughnut, it’s almost as if he has consumed two or three in terms of how much exercise he has to do to work it off.
Hunter could have sat back and felt sorry for himself. Instead, he decided to look for physical activities that suited him. He already knew he didn’t enjoy soccer, karate or football, but he discovered he was a natural swimmer—“because I was fat, I could float,” he says—and he enjoyed riding his bike.
Then, in 2000, he accompanied his parents to the Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid, N.Y., and got caught up in the energy and excitement. As his parents neared the finish line, Hunter ran onto the course and grabbed their hands so they could cross together. Right there he decided he’d compete in a race like that one day. It was a major turning point.
The nation is in the midst of an obesity epidemic—and kids are over-tipping the scales right along with their parents. A third of children and teenagers are either obese or at risk of becoming obese, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Medicine. In the last 30 years, the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled among children 2 to 5, more than tripled among kids 6 to 11 and increased even more among individuals 12 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Statistics like these inspired first lady Michelle Obama to launch the “Let’s Move” campaign earlier this year, which aims to reduce this country’s childhood obesity rate dramatically in the next 20 years.
Ideally, kids (and their parents) will slim down by following Hunter Lussi’s lead. After that fateful Ironman triathlon in 2000, Hunter, then 6, went home and started working out. At school, he ran during recess and joined a swim team. Over the course of a year, he worked up to swimming 500 yards, followed by biking 10 miles, and then running 2½ miles.
At 13, he participated in his first Ironman triathlon in Cambridge, Md., and became the youngest Ironman Distance Finisher in history. He swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles. At 14, he joined a swim team at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps still trains when he’s in town—and though it was a gradual process, that’s when Hunter really started getting thinner. Since then, his athletic accomplishments have been featured in Sports Illustrated Kids, Current Health, The Washington Post and elsewhere. Now 5 feet 9 and 167 pounds, Hunter has competed in 37 triathlons—and become a model for slimming down and shaping up.
“Through the process of training and achieving these goals, I became fit and thinner, and I feel better,” says Hunter, a junior at Georgetown Prep who has written a booklet called America, Get Off the Couch! and met with members of Congress to promote fitness for all Americans. He also is trying to get federal legislation passed that would make Labor Day America’s “Fitness Tri Day.”
Far more than an aesthetic concern, childhood obesity can have serious consequences. Obese children and teenagers are more likely to become obese adults. They’re also more likely to suffer adult-size, weight-related health problems during childhood, including high blood pressure, lipid abnormalities, type 2 diabetes (formerly called adult-onset diabetes), liver disease, obstructive sleep apnea and orthopedic problems.
“Children are having the onset of these obesity-related medical problems in childhood, and they’re going to carry these through adulthood,” says Dr. Sandra Hassink, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Obesity Leadership Workgroup and director of the Nemours Pediatric Obesity Initiative in Wilmington, Del. “Obesity itself is the driver of these conditions, and it’s a symptom of what’s not going right in our environment—in terms of diet and exercise—for kids.”
And research has found that “overweight kids are more likely to be bullied, which can lead to trauma and psychopathology down the road,” says Ann Jacob Smith, a psychotherapist specializing in weight management and eating disorders in Chevy Chase. “Overweight kids generally aren’t happy kids—they’re often ostracized and mistreated.”
Even if they’re not overtly mistreated, they may experience subtle forms of discrimination. A Chevy Chase mother whose 9-year-old son has a large build and is at least 10 pounds overweight recalls an incident in the late spring on a group camping trip. While her son had fun on the trip, it bothered him that the mother in charge of S’mores gave him just one, even as other kids were having seconds and thirds. A few days later, the boy’s mother saw the woman at the pool and mentioned the incident. “I wasn’t going to let him have another 500 calories,” the woman said, “so I let him have another marshmallow.”
“I know my son’s feelings were hurt,” his mother says, “and this is another example of being treated differently if you’re an overweight child.”
Years ago, pediatricians didn’t use the word “obese” when classifying a child’s weight, but the language used today is the same for adults and children. Among children 2 to 19, a body mass index (BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height) between the 5th and 84th percentiles for that child’s age and sex is considered a “healthy weight.” Those whose BMI falls between the 85th and 95th percentiles are “overweight.” And those above the 95th percentile are “obese.” (Parents can calculate their children’s BMI at apps.nccd.cdc.gov/dnpabmi/Calculator.aspx.)
It’s not enough for parents to visually judge their child’s weight, experts say, because the perception of what’s “normal” has shifted. As body weight in the United States has increased in recent decades, someone considered heavy in the 1970s or 1980s may appear quite normal now.