From winning NBA titles to rapping and starring in movies, Shaquille O'Neal has made himself one of the most recognizable names in the world. Now he's lending that name to the fight against childhood obesity in the new series Shaq's Big Challenge. Premiering tonight at 9 pm/ET, the ABC series follows O'Neal and his gang of physicians, physical trainers, nutritionists and health experts as they show six overweight Florida kids how to drop extra pounds. TVGuide.com checked in with The Diesel to learn more about his efforts to help these youngsters battle the bulge.
TVGuide.com: Why is fighting childhood obesity a cause that you're so passionate about?
Shaquille O'Neal: Because I saw some research that said if this epidemic isn't dealt with, children will have shorter lives than their parents. It's one of the most dangerous epidemics out there, so I just wanted to see if I could make more people aware. Of course, I'm not going to change the whole world, but if I can create some sort of domino effect, maybe local organizations or churches can create similar programs to start to bring down some of these horrifying numbers.
TVGuide.com: How were the six kids chosen for the show?
O'Neal: Well, we looked for kids who were obese. When we took them to the doctor, most of the kids we chose were found to be morbidly obese. We had a lot of work to do.
TVGuide.com: What were some of the more difficult habits to curb with these kids?
O'Neal: A lot of the time it wasn't just diet — we had to get them more active. You eat what you want to eat most of the time and it won't affect you that much if you're an active kid. But if you eat bad food and are not active at all, it's going to affect you. It's a fact that kids aren't as active as they used to be. Only six percent of schools have mandatory PE, so a lot of kids come home, watch their favorite show, eat and play video games.
TVGuide.com: Another part of the show is your attempt to get Florida to accept a fitness plan to be implemented in public schools. That sounds like a pretty difficult undertaking.
O'Neal: When I came in, I had to face a lot of different challenges. Getting them to hear us out and accept our plan wasn't easy. A lot of the schools in Florida don't have mandatory PE. They always want to throw the money issue in your face, so I tried to help them do it in a way where they don't have to spend any money.
TVGuide.com: When you were growing up, how did you stay fit?
O'Neal: I was always out. Running, playing kickball, baseball, playing tag, riding a bike — I was always active.
TVGuide.com: What rules does Shaq the father implement in his household to keep his own kids healthy?
O'Neal: My kids are active, so I don't need to come in and say, "Don't eat this, don't eat that." You've got to let a kid be a kid. But it's all about moderation. If things ever got out of hand, I'd take care of it.
TVGuide.com: You got your college coach Dale Brown to help out with the kids on the show.
O'Neal: Oh, yeah. I knew he'd be good, because we talk all the time. Dale is an important figure in my life.
TVGuide.com: Do you feel like players entering the NBA from high school are missing out by not having people like Dale Brown in their lives?
O'Neal: I know they're missing something, but to each his own. I can never knock someone for doing what they think is right for themselves and their family, but you can definitely never get those college years back.
TVGuide.com: There have been times throughout your basketball career when it's been reported that you've arrived to training camp overweight. Did those struggles factor into your decision to do the show?
O'Neal: Well, there's really not a weight barometer for basketball. I've always been a freak of nature. Those same years they said I arrived out of shape were the same years I won. Obviously, those so-called experts don't know what they're talking about. I'm 7 [feet tall] with 13 percent body fat.
TVGuide.com: Well, did you ever come into training camp needing to shed weight?
O'Neal: Yeah, that's why you work up to it. Summer is a time to get some rest. That's always been my way of approaching it, and that's got me four championships.
TVGuide.com: Last year you played 40 games in the regular season, the lowest total of your career. The year before, you played 59. How much longer do you think your health will allow you to compete?
O'Neal: I got three more years. My last few years were freak injuries. Last year I got my knee taken out. It's not like I woke up and decided I couldn't do it. I've always had freak injuries.
TVGuide.com: When it does come to the end of your career, would you be interested in doing more TV projects like Shaq's Big Challenge?
O'Neal: If I get the opportunity to do something that's going to make a difference, sure. I don't want to just do shows to be doing shows.
TVGuide.com: So no more acting?
O'Neal: I got a couple of movies lined up this summer. We'll see. I'm lucky enough that I've got a lot of options, so I'll just take it from there.
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