A report published by Statistics Canada (Roberts, Sheilds and de Groh) citing that approximately one third of Canadian children between the ages of 5 and 17 years are overweight or obese was a recent focus of media discussion. Various pediatric experts and parents were asked to "weigh" in on both the whys-of, and the what-to-do-about this negatively escalating trend.
Some thought parents are to blame for feeding children bad food and not setting proper limits around children's use of technology (Drudi). Technology itself took much direct responsibility as children's lifestyle behaviours have shifted to computers and video-games over sporting activities (Ubelacker). The food industry was accused of making processed unhealthy food that is fast to serve, yet seriously lacking in any sort of nutritional value (CBC News). Canadian politicians and government were also faulted for not being more like New York's Mayor Bloomberg, who recently banned the sale of super-sized, sugar-laden drinks in his city (Postmedia News).
Then, when it came to tackling this issue, the most frequently recommended approach to preventing obesity in children was the promotion of a healthy active lifestyle and the need to significantly boost children's physical activity. (Ubelacker) A public school Principal who introduced a student "boot camp" was thought to have a great model to follow. It is a rigorous physical education program including "intensive one-hour regimes" for children (Postmedia News). Then there was the broad, general, feel-good solution that would see our healthcare communities, parents and government regulators all working together to resolve this growing problem (CBC News).
Throughout this media discussion, there was but one voice of reason - a Dr. Katherine Morrison - who noted that the resolution of this issue has to start with an examination of "our own habits" (Drudi). While simple, Dr. Morrison's point is critical to the heart of this issue because, on a fundamental level, what we end up creating in our lives, and the world, is the sum of all of our habits, or an accumulation of all of the small choices we make daily in our own lives. How we behave in this arena relates directly to our children, because as parents we guide and encourage the choices our children make as we prepare them to take over this responsibility for themselves as they get older.
However, more important than this observation of Dr. Morrison's, is the fact that changing our habits (and those of our children) does not have to be something that we need to rely on industry or government to resolve. One of the biggest drawbacks of our market-based economy is the many ways it has created in us a dependency on these institutions. One of the primary reasons we have an escalating issue of children who are overweight and obese is because many of us have gotten away from trusting and honouring our own internal guidance systems for knowing and acting on what is best for ourselves and our families.
Critical to our ability to evolve our habits is the idea that we must start resisting the demanding expectations and pressures imposed by both society and our lifestyle choices. As one father who responded to this issue suggests, parents are quite overwhelmed with all that life throws our way, so we turn to quick fixes like processed foods, just to be able to cope (Hunter). These social pressures and lifestyle choices often leave us with the excuse that we don't have enough time. But if you find yourself saying that too often, maybe you need to rethink some of your obligations and what is really most important. As this problem of over-weight and obese children highlights, reacting to stressful life circumstances by cutting corners on what we know is best for us has potentially disastrous long-term ramifications.
But we can all relate to being too busy to do what is really right for ourselves and our families. So one key way to begin to challenge this problem would be to pay attention to all of those times when you say "I don't have time to... ". This is a thought we tend to have when we are avoiding the changes we know we need to make in our lives. Take time to challenge these thoughts; do you really not have time, or have you let other things take priority over something that is really important to you personally? For example, if commuting to and from work eats up valuable time in your day, are there any opportunities that would allow you to work from home? Now this may seem like too big a change for most of us to make or even consider, so the key to making realistic, sustainable change is to go small and slowly.
To shift the scales on childhood obesity we must do as Dr. Morrison suggests, and start with our own habits. In the simplest terms, that means choosing to embrace new ways of doing things over entrenched behaviours. But it is important to understand that for these changes to really take hold they must not be as daunting or overwhelming as some of the experts in these articles would have us believe.
Seriously, how many of us would be genuinely motivated by the possibility of participating in a "boot camp" or "intensive one-hour exercise program"? Especially if you are a child who is not overly active to begin with, engaging in this type of intense activity is more likely to make you feel like a failure and turn you off of exercise for good! There has to be a more realistic, gradual way to cultivate a natural love for physical body movement in our children.
Instead, if a shift is to take place to reverse the trend of overweight and obese children, it must come from small changes that parents and children make, little-by-little, and day-by-day, in their own lives. Sustainable change can only come from small, manageable steps that we can realistically commit to and complete. For instance, if you thought that an increase in activity was one way you could improve the health of your children, then think of a few baby-steps you can take in this direction. What if you just parked father away from a store entrance or encouraged taking the stairs instead of taking the elevator? The secret is to look for small things that are really, really easy for you to implement (if the idea you come up with seems too hard, break it down even smaller!). Also, don't expect perfection, but if you can try different ways of doing things now and then, you will eventually see that you have started to make some very significant changes.
So getting in touch with our own habits is one of the most effective ways for us to cultivate the larger shifts we require in our society. But, while challenging our existing social pressures and lifestyle choices is not always easy, making a small effort to initiate micro-steps towards a new behaviour is a doable and manageable approach that gives everyone an opportunity to be a force for change. Even if every third Canadian took up this challenge, we would surely start to see a reversal in number of overweight and obese children in our country without much need for industry or government intervention.