Obesity production one tool in arsenal to battle pandemic

Zach Diestler grew up with video games in his house, and even as an actor educating Bay Area youth about the risks of childhood obesity, he still plays video games.

But, he says, the hour-long production he performs with three other actors as part of Kaiser Permanente’s Education Theatre Program to educate kids on healthy eating and exercise habits also educates him.

“It’s been teaching me, just like the kids, to cut it down” to an hour a day, the 25-year-old, thin and fit Diestler said.

In “The Best Me,” the audience follows and interacts with Diestler’s character and three friends as they navigate the muddy social waters of elementary school.

One tries to make the soccer team but fails because his diet of soda and chips leaves him sluggish while another — Diestler’s character — becomes consumed with video games after his parents split up, shunning social activities to stay indoors.

Characters such as “Queen Activitay,” “Soda Can Man” and “Hydro Girl” play hero and villain in the production put on by Kaiser.

On Monday, Diestler and the rest of the troupe performed for the San Mateo County Childhood Obesity Task Force as an example of what kind of methods are available for fighting the epidemic.

An April 2006 task force report called childhood obesity a “prevalent epidemic across San Mateo County, just as it is in” California and the U.S.

According to the report, 25 percent of all fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders in the county are overweight, with rates higher in Pacific Islander, Hispanic, African-American and Filipino populations.

Dr. Scott Tsunehara, an internal medicine doctor at Kaiser South San Francisco, said this was not just an example of awareness causing numbers to rise, but children and adults are definitely getting more obese and leading more sedentary lifestyles.

“It’s actually a fact; it’s not just perception,” Tsunehara said, emphasizing appropriate diet and exercise as the most important combatants of obesity.

The theater program has many different shows with themes such as violence prevention and peer pressure, and updates the shows annually to stay fresh with pop culture anecdotes, performing the shows free of charge at Bay Area schools. The program has been around since 1984, and an estimated 400,000 students in California and 11 million nationwide have seen at least one of the productions, said Mina Morita, the program coordinator.

dsmith@examiner.com

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