A Florida-based actor, singer and dancer is becoming increasingly popular with the pre-middle school set. He has two books out, one that received a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, as well as a promising pilot for a unique television program that’s being shopped around for funding.
But this talented individual wasn’t discovered on “The Voice” or “Dancing with the Stars.” He doesn’t have a hot-shot agent or a mansion in Miami. He lives in Hollywood, but it’s the one in Broward County, FL. He got his start during breakfast at a local diner in 2004, when Marc Kesselman, D.O.’83, FACC, FACOI, and his wife, Robin Kesselman, D.O., were brainstorming on how they could help tackle Americans’ largely sedentary, junk-food-filled lifestyle. Robin sketched out an idea on a napkin.
Nerdel, the cute little alien from Planet Zendel, was born.
“Our goal is to get kids at an early age to eat more fruits and vegetables and to exercise more, and we want to make it fun,” Marc says. “How could we get that message to kids? One way is through media – print, video and the Internet.”
How did two practicing physicians – Marc, a cardiologist; Robin, a family physician – come to create Nerdel’s animated world? Their patients inspired the idea.
“In my cardiology practice, I would see the end result of poor nutrition and lack of exercise among people who didn’t know how important it was, when they were young, to eat right and exercise,” he says. “The data show that as we grow older, the more we exercise, the healthier we are as a cohort. But by the time people reach their teens, as a group they fall off eating healthfully and exercising regularly.”
Now The Nerdel® Company, which the Kesselmans founded in 2006, offers kids, their families and educators a website, books and “In a Nerdel Minute” videos. Via www.nerdel.com, you can send a Nerdel e-card, meet Nerdel’s friends, find recipes, download games, do the Nerdel dance and enjoy interactive graphics.
The enterprise wasn’t an overnight success; the company was getting its start when obesity rates among adolescents ages 12-19 were around 18 percent, nearly twice the rate a decade earlier.
“When we started this project, there was not a lot of support for it,” Marc says. That began to change thanks in part to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, a national effort to tackle childhood obesity by promoting physical activity and healthy diets. Nerdel’s approach to nutrition also meshed with the USDA’s
“My Plate” guidelines, which include making fruits and vegetables half of one’s plate.
“The First Lady has brought a lot of attention to the issue,” Marc says, “but the problem is still there.”
That’s only made the Kesselmans more determined to spread the Nerdel word. They teamed with Natali Martinez to illustrate their two books, Nerdel’s ABC Book and Counting on Fruit with Nerdel, the Moonbeam Award-winner. They partnered with Celebrity Cruises to offer games and activities, including live puppet performances, on healthy nutrition and exercise aimed at three- to eight-year-old passengers. In 2012, they approached the Broward Education Communications Network, or BECON, a television network owned and operated by the Broward County, FL, Public Schools that offers educational programs to viewers of all ages.
“Our goal is to get kids at an early age to eat more fruits and vegetables and to exercise more, and we want to make it fun.”
Now their “In a Nerdel Minute” videos air five days a week.
The Kesselmans and BECON took Nerdel a step further by producing a pilot program featuring the alien, his friends and their healthy messages. The station built the sets and assembled the puppets.
“The pilot is really colorful, clever and exciting,” says Phyllis Schiffer-Simon, Ed.D., BECON general manager.
“Our goal is to obtain underwriting to be able to distribute it widely. We don’t know of any other program like it.”
The pilot’s timing could be right. A study led by Emory University researchers, released in January, found that much of a child’s “weight fate” is set by age five, showing that the preschool years may be the best window of opportunity to prevent obesity. In early March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new data showing a 43 percent drop in obesity rates among children ages two to five over the past decade; while overall rates remain high, the data gave researchers hope the obesity tide can be turned.
Toward that goal, Marc and Robin Kesselman are working on more books and video projects, giving presentations and finessing the Nerdel website.
“Our successes may have been small, but they are continuing. We’ve heard from schoolteachers Nerdel is having an impact,” Marc says. “If we teach kids that fruits and vegetables are very important, they’ll want to eat more. And it’s a wonderful feeling to see children watch Nerdel and want to do the same activity.”