For nearly nine years and 14 seasons in the United States, Bob Harper has been considered the "nice" trainer on NBC’s hit reality show, "The Biggest Loser."
When asked about the overall health of American kids, however, Harper, who hosted the USTA’s youth tennis demonstration at New York’s Madison Square Garden during Monday’s "Tennis Night in America," won’t sugarcoat the news: The U.S. has been losing the battle with childhood obesity.
"Childhood obesity is on the rise, which is why I’m so glad to be a part of the USTA’s youth tennis efforts, because we need strong forces to get the message out there that our kids need our help," said Harper, who also attended the 2012 US Open to help raise consciousness about the epidemic during National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month last summer.
The 47-year-old fitness expert, television personality and author is also a celebrity advocate for First Lady Michelle Obama’s national "Let’s Move!" campaign, which works to introduce at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day for school children, and he attended last week’s three-year anniversary celebration of the "Let’s Move!" initiative in Chicago. Also there was four-time US Open champion and fellow Tennis Night in America participant Serena Williams.
"Tennis is a great sport in particular because you can be active and you can have fun," said Williams. "You can work out your entire body with just one sport. I think tennis is a really, really good sport that can motivate these children and fight childhood obesity."
Harper says influence is a prime culprit for the declining health and the rising obesity risk in kids. Today, nearly one in three children in America qualify as either overweight or obese, according to a 2013 study conducted by the American Heart Association. That is nearly triple the rate of 50 years ago.
"Kids learn from the parents by their actions," said Harper. "A parent can’t simply tell a child to eat healthier and be more active when they’re not doing it themselves."
Not only is it parents, but many public school curriculums are cutting back physical education, putting children at further risk. The 60-minute pledge for activity before, during or after school provides a small difference in a kid’s daily routine – but it can pay large long-term dividends.
"Sixty minutes a day is a great number – it’s what we shoot for," said Harper. "The fact is kids aren’t playing at all. If we can get them to get out for that amount of time, it’s a huge accomplishment."
For that reason, Harper jumped at the chance to get involved with Tennis Night in America and the USTA’s youth tennis demonstration.
"For me, tennis was always such a great sport because all you need to do is get a racquet and a ball," said Harper. "There were times as a kid, when I would just grab my racquet and a ball and head to the side of the house – that was my tennis partner because I just wanted to play. The main message is: ‘Get out, get more active, and if you love tennis – which I do – it can be one of the best sports that you can use to your advantage.’"
Harper also is proud to lend his voice in the promotion of Tennis Festivals during the month of March, a coast-to-coast, grass-roots effort designed to introduce the sport to children and their families through fun games and activities.
"My whole message is about getting kids to be more active – to get them away from the television and the computer screen," he said. "They’re spending up to seven hours a day doing so and they’re leading completely sedentary lifestyles. I’ll talk with kids and say: ‘When I was a kid, it was about playing until the sun went down.’"
Harper is hopeful that his positive message can help make a difference in the lives of youngsters. This season, "The Biggest Loser," features three teenage contestants, ages 13 to 17, and Harper has talked tennis with one of those teens, Noah Gray, a sports-obsessed kid looking to change his life.
"He’s a competitive kid, and I’ve talked about the benefits of the game with him," said Harper. "I’m trying to get that in his brain."