Teach your kids to be healthy through example

My newest grandchild is 18 months old and even has a nickname, Gunny. What a joy it is to escape the complexities of adulthood to focus on him, just playing.

My newest grandchild is 18 months old and even has a nickname, Gunny. What a joy it is to escape the complexities of adulthood to focus on him, just playing.

Recently, I had to muck out the compost on a typical Vancouver winter day — it was pouring rain. So I dressed Gunny up in boots, sweater, gloves, and rain slicker, and out we went.

As each shovelful turned up worms, I encouraged Gunny to pick out the big ones to feed to the turtle. He dove in with gusto. Anything moving and colourful immediately attracted his attention.

It took a while to empty the fully composted side of the box and turn over the newer material but he kept digging away with his toy shovel and never lost interest or wandered off.

I cannot imagine what is going on in my grandson’s brain. He is learning about an entire world with no reference points to start from. A while back, his other grandfather was chopping wood, and as he was piling up the pieces, there was Gunny, barely able to walk, struggling to carry a piece of wood to the pile!

Composting? Piling wood? One might wonder what meaning those activities will have for a child who is going to grow up in a big city, parked in front of a computer screen or text messaging on a cellphone. I believe they have everything to do with that child’s future.

You see, I am as alarmed by the astonishing rise of childhood obesity as I am about the ecological crisis. Children learn by the example set by adults.

When my daughter Severn was 12 years old, she gave a speech at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, appealing to adults to think more about children and the kind of world we are leaving them. Her words struck a nerve and created a media flurry.

At one point, a reporter commented, “Yeah, we’ve done a pretty lousy job of taking care of the environment, but you kids are different; you’ll lead the way.” It was an attempt to compliment her, I suppose, but I was astonished by her reply. “Oh,” she said, “Is that the excuse for adults to do nothing? Besides, you are our role models. We copy what you do, so how can you expect us to be any different?”

I was dumbstruck by the depth of her response. She was absolutely right. How many parents who smoke are successful when they tell their children not to smoke?

“Do as I say, not as I do” is a pretty weak way of trying to influence a child’s behaviour.

That brings me back to my grandson’s generation. If they are surrounded by role models who are too busy to spend time playing, who watch television or play computer games to pass time together, how are they going to know that walking, jumping, and moving are what our bodies need to stay healthy?

We evolved from the natural world where everything we did involved our muscle power. Harnessing the power of animals was a huge advance, but on an evolutionary scale, it was extremely recent. Our bodies must move to stay healthy.

Exercise is an important factor in reducing a number of our major health problems, from diabetes to stroke, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and cancer. Our bodies evolved to be active.

But since we started harnessing cheap, plentiful energy in oil, we’ve used machines to do our every bidding. Exercise, like concern for the environment, shouldn’t be a special activity for which we need experts, gyms, and equipment.

It has to be a part of the way we live.

Moving, walking — anything involving the expenditure of energy — is exercise.

Driving a few blocks instead of walking or biking, or using escalators and elevators instead of stairs deprives our bodies of what they need to stay healthy. I go to the gym, but not to look buff. (At my age, that is a long-gone hope.)

I do it for my health. Exercise is my medicine. Now that energy prices are rising, we have a chance to rethink the way we live.

We must include exercise as an important health component.

In the meantime, as a caring grandfather, I want to spend more time hiking and playing with my grandchildren.

Scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki writes this column with scientist Faisal Moola. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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