By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- "I’m feeling stronger than ever, and I look forward to hitting the courts again when I get to the festival."
These are the words of Dr. Mehmet Oz, America's pre-eminent guru of preventative health. Tennis player. Consummate survivor.
In the year since Dr. Oz and his HealthCorps crew celebrated the very first "Highway to Health" festival in Queens in May 2010, a great many things have changed for the nationally syndicated surgeon: Just two months after celebrating his 50th birthday in June, Oz was hit with the news that he had a pre-cancerous polyp in his colon during a routine check-up.
Odds are Oz's unerring faith in proactive procedures like regular colonoscopies saved his life, allowing him to plan for growing his not-for-profit health education organization, HealthCorps, in the years to come.
"The scare I had was a way for me to make preventative health more of a reality for my millions of show viewers," said Oz. "In a way, I have to look at it as a wakeup call for me and a lot of Americans."
Thus, while its hard to imagine any individual to be more focused than the always upbeat and vigor-filled Dr. Oz, he took to the stage with a newfound purpose, addressing a huddled crowd twenty people-deep in front of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
With HealthCorps, Oz and company are out to defeat cancer's terrible twin in heart disease brought on by obesity, as casualties from the life-threatening condition increase annually in the United States. What's worse, no one age group is truly immune; cardiovascular disease is now being seen in teenagers, and the average age of first heart attacks has dropped by over 10 years in overweight patients.
Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Within the last two years, twenty-eight states have seen a significant increase in obesity, with 15 of these states experiencing an increase for a second year in a row. Unfortunately, the steepest increase is among children and adolescents. HealthCorps does what it can to actively raise awareness and promote programming in 41 different American schools in high-risk areas of the country.
"In the long term, our primary goal was always to change the American educational system back to evaluating health education and physical activity," said Michelle Bouchard, President of HealthCorps. "By losing those things as core curriculum, we've lost so much impact on kids and performance."
Using metaphorical comparison, Oz broke it down for the crowd.
"I think of childhood obesity like a virus - you don't want to get it, and it hits you in ways you don't appreciate or understand before it inevitable spreads to your family and friends," said Oz to the onlookers. "Not surprisingly, we adopt the eating habits of those around us. It is actually more about these habits and the way we are all raised, more so than genes, which explains why we are either fat or thin.
"Fortunately, bad habits can be - and must be - broken."
To demonstrate the many avenues afforded to parents and children to life a healthier lifestyle, HealthCorps filled the South Plaza with information tents and activities for the second straight year and featured two new feature activities for 2011: A 5K Fun Run/Walk in Corona Park, along with the first-annual "Music for a Better America" talent competition, hosted by world-renowned magician and television personality Todd Robbins.
In addition to live entertainment, the festival prominently featured 10 and Under Tennis, as well as free health screenings, Zumba classes, Capoeira martial arts workouts, Laughing Yoga, Hula Hoop contests, unicycle rides, healthy food samples and the Teen Battle Chef cooking competition. Joining Dr. Oz on the stage for the opening address were also Alfredo "Frado" Dinten from "The Biggest Loser" Season 10 and Grammy Award-winning R&B recording artist Caron Wheeler to entertain the guests.
After kicking off the show, Oz and Bouchard took advantage of their surroundings - Oz is a long-time tennis nut, holding his showcase event at the home of the US Open, after all - and excitedly walked over to Court 11 to check out the multiple 36-foot QuickStart Tennis format games being played.
Soon enough, Oz grabbed a junior racquet and joined the youngsters in their pursuit of the foam balls. Afterwards, the doctor spent time speaking with the kids and their parents, autographing their shirts and hats.
"I love the precision of the game and the great exercise it offers," said Oz. "I think 10 and Under Tennis is a terrific way to get kids not only exercising but passionate about a sport I happen to love.
"With this format, you can bring tennis to the inner city, or a paved area of a park. Tennis is an ideal sport to enhance coordination and balance. It’s a favored sport in my family."
More about HealthCorps:
HealthCorps’ core mission is to fight child obesity by empowering teens and communities to become health agents of change to enhance the health of their environments and to help the country reach the tipping point towards wellness now and for the future. HealthCorps is focused on three priorities - educating the student body®; achieving community outreach through "Fit Town™" – an initiative to connect and activate citizens and organizations to bring about change through local projects and initiatives; and advocating for policy shifts across all levels of government that put health and physical education back into the core curriculum of the American education system. The program network spans 41 schools in 11 states.
The HealthCorps Board of Directors includes medical practitioners such as Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Brian Wansink (Cornell), Dr. David Katz (Yale University), Dr. Michael Roizen (Cleveland Clinic), Dr. John Ratey (Harvard), Dr. Laura Berman and many other renown health experts. HealthCorps is a 501 (C) 3 non-profit organization. For more information, please visit www.healthcorps.org