Putting your child on the path to health for life: from their first years to their golden years.
Chilliwack’s Michelle Greenwood always considered herself the picture of health. The 40-year old mother of two hits the gym regularly, started running 10Ks in her 20s and enjoys boot camp fitness classes. Since childhood, she’d eaten an apple a day with lunch and rarely had a meal without fruits or vegetables.
So when Michelle was diagnosed with gestational diabetes while carrying her second child, it came as a shock. Her high blood sugar levels – a precursor to diabetes – persisted after the birth. Her family doctor cautioned her to pay even closer attention to her diet and exercise. “It was definitely a big reality check for me,” she recalls. “I always thought I was pretty healthy, but it made me realize that some of the things I thought were healthy, like white bread and rice, were actually not that great for me.”
Then her husband John, age 45, was diagnosed with high cholesterol, which if left uncontrolled can contribute to heart disease. The couple realized they might not have been living healthily enough to ward off the chronic diseases that are increasingly damaging the health of millions of Canadians. She vowed that their children Zachary, 5, and Alexis, 3, wouldn’t face the same risks as they aged. “I want my kids to make good choices for their whole lives,” Michelle says. “If I get them started now, they won’t even think twice about it as they get older, it will just become automatic.”
One in three BC residents has one or more chronic diseases
Across Canada, chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are on the rise. Today, an estimated 1.6 million Canadians live with heart disease or the effects of a stroke, and one in four Canadians will die of heart disease or stroke, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Another three million Canadians are living with diabetes, according to the Canadian Diabetes Association. And 750,000 Canadians have been diagnosed with COPD, the British Columbia Lung Association reports.
Chronic disease prevalence increases with age, which poses real problems for our aging population. Already, chronic disease is sending more seniors to hospital emergency rooms and shortening their lives. Chronic diseases not only cost seniors their quality of life, but they place huge financial costs on our society.
One in three BC residents lives with one or more chronic diseases. These patients consume more than 80 per cent of our health care budgets. The total price tag? An estimated $22 billion a year in economic losses and health care expenditures, expected to rise 58 per cent over the next 25 years. Preventing or delaying the onset of chronic disease could save BC taxpayers billions in the future.
But achieving this will require families to start to revaluate their lifestyles now.
One of the best gifts a family like Michelle’s can give their child today – and society tomorrow – is a healthy start at the beginning of life to help ensure more healthy years near the end of their lives. Today’s kids need the help. Currently, 31 per cent of Canadian children – 1.6 million kids – are overweight or obese, according to the 2009-11 Canadian Health Measures Survey. Only 45 per cent of children get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, according to Health Canada. And youth are more sedentary than ever: the average child aged six to 17 spends nine hours a day sitting, according to Statistics Canada.
The good news is many of the factors that contribute to chronic diseases are lifestyle habits we can control. Up to 80 per cent of premature heart disease, stroke and Type-2 diabetes are preventable by eliminating tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy food choices and physical inactivity, according to the BC Ministry of Health. Many of these poor habits are formed in childhood, but they don’t have to be.
Living the 5-2-1-0 way
Families like Michelle’s are taking their kids’ health in hand early to ensure they enjoy healthy adulthoods. She’s modeled her family’s habits around the principles of BC’s Live 5-2-1-0 healthy living and eating initiative. About four years ago, Michelle came across the program in her family doctor’s office and it struck her as an easy way to ensure her children get the best start.
The Live 5-2-1-0 initiative, a program of BC Children’s Hospital, was launched in 2009 and is led by the SCOPE team (Sustainable Childhood Obesity Prevention through Community Engagement). It sets out four simple steps for kids and families to follow, which are endorsed by Healthy Families BC and the Canadian Institute for Health Research. They are:
5: Enjoy five or more fruits and vegetables a day
2: Limit screen time to no more than two hours a day
1: Play actively for at least one hour a day
0: Drink zero sugary drinks
For Michelle, living 5-2-1-0 starts at the dinner table. Her children rarely drink sugared beverages, sticking mainly to water or low-fat milk. Before dinner, she puts a plate of cut vegetables on the table for her kids’ snacks. During dinner, they leave the salt shaker off the table. Vegetables and protein are a part of every meal. “If we have a meal that doesn’t have a vegetable, I joke that we are going to get scurvy,” she says. While Zachary is an omnivore, Alexis is still in a picky-eater stage. Still, she is served salad three times a week, to get her familiar with it, and in the meantime her parents sneak fruit and vegetable purees into smoothies and sauces.
The next step is getting moving. The family limits screen time to two hours a day and favours active leisure. “I’m pretty strict with the TV and I save it for when I need it, during dinner prep or when the kids are completely rambunctious and I need to calm them down,” Michelle says.
She takes her son and daughter on a 40-minute round-trip walk to and from Zachary’s school each day. After school, the kids take swimming lessons and play in a soccer league once a week. On weekends, the family hits the playground or takes long walks along Chilliwack’s trails: they stroll along the Vedder River, hike up to Bridal Falls, and wander through the Cheam wetlands. “I like to keep them active not only because of the health benefits, but because it tires them out,” Michelle says. “I find my kids are much better behaved when we get home from an activity than if we stay home all day.
Playboxes a treasure trove for kids
Communities are also embracing healthy living. Municipalities across BC and within Fraser Health are creating civic infrastructure to improve the health of residents. Take the Live 5-2-1-0 playboxes, for example. The free-to-use playboxes include skipping ropes, hula hoops, Frisbees, basketballs, soccer balls, badminton racquets and more. They are kept locked: parents simply register to receive access codes. The first set launched in three Abbotsford city parks in October 2014 (Berry, Grant and Pepin Brook Parks). To date, more than 140 Abbotsford families have signed up. Since then, playboxes have been installed in Chilliwack (Central Community, Landing Centre, Watson-Glen Parks), Hope (Memorial and 6th Avenue Parks), Boston Bar, and Yale, with more planned in other communities, including Agassiz and Mission.
Michelle and her family discovered the playbox in Watson Glen last year. It was a hit. “The kids played with everything. They loved it. I even taught my son to jump rope. After a while the same playground can get boring. The playboxes make our time at the park longer. When they lose interest, I can say, ‘Let’s go play Frisbee.’”
Laura Loudon, a Fraser Health Healthy Community Specialist who helped set up Abbotsford’s Live 5-2-1-0 playbox initiative with Healthy Abbotsford, SCOPE and other community partners, explains the goal was to remove barriers to active play for families. The playboxes are free and convenient, don’t require the time or cost of organized sports, encourage families to play together, and foster community connections as others join in. “Kids’ activity levels these days are relatively poor. Kids are spending more and more of their free time in sedentary behaviours,” Loudon says. “Physical activity is essential for kids’ development, and establishing a healthy lifestyle now is essential to ensure they become healthy adults and avoid chronic diseases later.”
Michelle’s optimistic that her family’s healthy lifestyle will ensure her kids stay healthy from their first years to their golden years. “Doctors are so much better at detecting things earlier so that we can prevent them,” she says. “In the past, it was more like all of a sudden you have diabetes. Now, the whole health community is so much better at prevention than it used to be.”
Top 10 ways to grow healthy seniors…
… start with healthy kids
Live 5-2-1-0: Follow these simple principles for health living.
Make exercise fun: Get your family outdoors to play together. Sign up for 5-2-1-0 playboxes. In Abbotsford, in Chilliwack, and in Hope, Yale, and Boston Bar.
Eat well: Make good nutrition a priority. Follow Canada’s Food Guide.
Get your family moving: Get tailored advice and create an action plan for becoming more active at any age through BC’s free Physical Activity Line.
Consult the experts: Secure a family physician, dentist, optometrist and other key heath care providers for your child and follow check up and immunization schedules.
Be a role model: Good health runs in families. Kids take their cues from you. Try to hit the gym, quit smoking, limit your drinking and eat right. Tips for leading by example at HealthLinkBC.
Limit screen time: Try alternatives to tablets, computers and TV: books, board games, crafts, sports are better pastimes.
Teach health literacy: Learning the ABCs of good nutrition and healthy habits are just as crucial for kids as learning to read. Teach them to read food labels, recipes, cook and grocery shop.
Join a healthy living program: HealthLinkBC’s Eating and Activity Program for Kids offers a free phone-based coaching program for kids 0-18 who may be above a healthy weight.
Build mental health: Create strong bonds to improve mood, lower stress and really connect. Turn off the TV. Have dinner together. Save weekends for family activities.
This article was originally published in the Healthier You Spring 2016 magazine
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