FIRST LADY MICHELLE PATERSON: Making Healthy Steps – and History – Downstate in Quest to Teach Children Importance of Nutrition and Exercise
Over the past year, she’s brought her health and wellness message to thousands of New Yorkers at key events and, with her Healthy Steps to Albany campaign, inspired hundreds of middle school students to increase their physical activity and consumption of healthy foods.
Fueling her “healthier New York” missions are the stunning data on obesity throughout the nation – especially childhood obesity. And, as reporter Andrew J. Hawkins noted in The Capitol newspaper last May, the First Lady “can effortlessly rattle off statistics: one in four children is overweight; one in three in communities of color. More young people today have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular problems than ever before.” “The purpose of the Healthy Steps program is to educate: exercising regularly improves your physical, emotional and psychological health,” says First Lady Paterson, is also Honorary Chair of the New York State Commission on National and Community Service and Director of Integrative Wellness at Emblem Health. “Students who eat well will learn and live well, too.”
“Yet, despite the incredible medical breakthroughs of the past few decades, our children are part of the first generation of kids who may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents,” she said recently. “We have seen an increase in the rates of obesity-related illnesses, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We, as parents, educators and community leaders, must promote healthy activity, eating and living so that our children can lead long, healthy and active lives.”
Yesterday, the First Lady offered these comments in direct response to Our Time Press questions about her program and the healthy living concept.
OTP: What is the most important message you are trying to get to students?
FIRST LADY PATERSON: There are a couple of lessons I want the kids to learn from their participation in Healthy Steps to Albany.
First, this program is about lifestyle. I want our kids to see that exercising can be fun and that eating healthy can taste great. These habits are part of a lifestyle that will support their physical and emotional well-being from their adolescence through to their adult lives.
Second, I want this program to show our kids that they are in control of their bodies. They are the ones who decide whether to go for a run or sit inside, whether to eat fresh fruit instead of fast foods. This initiative is a tool that our kids can use to build their own health program, one that they can carry out each day – beyond just the 6-week Healthy Steps competition.
Finally, it’s important to note that the point is not to deny ourselves the foods we enjoy. We need to teach moderation. While we should not eat French fries every day, we can have them on occasion – moderation is central to how I eat and important to maintaining a healthy weight.
OTP: What are the school’s, parent’s and the child’s unique responsibilities?
F.L.PATERSON: The health of our children is a real community concern, so it makes sense that each level of our communities gets involved. I developed Healthy Steps in such a way that promotes the participation of our educators, families and kids.
This program is administered through our schools, so it’s the responsibility of the teachers, coaches and principals to provide students with the support they need to thrive. They can help track steps and encourage healthy eating – or even integrate a health lesson in their weekly curriculum. It’s important that the environment where our kids spend a large portion of their time reinforces the message of wellness.
It’s also important that this message is reinforced at home. That’s why parents – who often decide what’s served for dinner or stored in the snack jar – must think about how those decisions impact their kids in the long term. As a working mother of two, I know how difficult preparing meal at the end of the day can be – but choosing convenience over health does our children a disservice. Simple adjustments – like planning meals ahead of time or making dinner a family activity, can help make meals fun, instead of stressful. We must also look at the activities we do as a family. I know that in the age of big-screen TVs or game systems, it’s easy to lounge around, but incorporating physical activity into family time also sets an example for our children.
Finally, our children must also take responsibility for their own health. As I mentioned before, this program really emphasizes their participation. Beyond just counting the “steps” they earn, our kids must decide how they will spend their free time, what kind of foods they’ll eat in school or while with friends, and how they will apply the lessons learned during the competition to their daily routines after the program.
OTP: What do you think of school lunches?
F.L.PATERSON: While not the focus of Healthy Steps to Albany, it’s important that we know what our children are eating while in school. The nutritional information for the food items served in our school cafeterias should be readily available and I encourage parents and educators to be involved.
OTP: Did you have a weight problem growing up as a teen?
F.L.PATERSON: When I went through puberty, I didn’t necessarily struggle with my weight, but I did notice that my body began to change and that my emotions were different from before. Those developments certainly impacted me and – like most people – I suffered from low self-esteem, uncertainty and even depression. I turned to running as an antidote. I grew up on the Upper East Side and was fortunate to have access to Central Park. I would run around the reservoir and began to notice that my state of mind improved and that I felt well physically. I’m now a runner with 33 years experience and know that the habits I formed then have benefited me throughout my adult life.
OTP: Where do children and parents go for help?
F.L.PATERSON: There are many resources for both parents and kids – but they should first consult with their physicians about a specific health concern and proper nutrition plan. Kids should also talk with their coaches and gym teachers about their physical education and any questions they might have about sports or health in general. Additional resources come from all levels of government, which is greatly vested in the health and welfare of our communities. The websites for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department of Health and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are full of information for kids and their families.
OTP: Have you cut back on your diet choices since going around the state with this program?
F.L.PATERSON: As I said earlier, I started to pay attention to my diet when I was in middle school. By diet, I don’t mean something I did to lose weight, but rather my personal eating habits, which included lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. I continue to eat those foods, but also know that moderation is an important tool. I enjoy pasta and cheese and dessert just as much as the next person, but I limit my consumption of those foods.
About Healthy Steps to Albany: Teams of middle school students compete against each other to see who can earn the most ‘steps’ in six weeks! Students keep a day log of the exercise they get and the healthy foods they eat. Every minute of activity is converted into ‘steps’ that go towards the classrooms virtual trip to Albany. Students track their virtual trip to Albany using the Healthy Steps Map Poster or electronic application. Each footprint is equal to 20,000 steps.
Each classroom is a team, and the team from the 6th, 7th and 8th grade that earns the most steps is declared the winner. Winners are invited to meet the First Lady and the Governor at a healthy luncheon and a chance to visit a farm to learn about whole foods and agriculture. All teams receive a certificate of participation.
First Lady Michelle Paige Paterson has a M.S. in Health Services Management from the Milano Graduate School in New York City and a B.A. from Syracuse University. She began a career focused on people’s health by working with both hospitals and healthcare providers.
NOTE TO READERS, EDUCATORS & HEALTH ADVOCATES!!! First Lady Paterson’s next Healthy Steps challenge begins on March 1st, 2010 and ends April 11, 2010. Register your local middle schools now for the upcoming competition! To learn more about the program and obtain details, visit the First Lady’s Healthy Steps Website (http://www.healthystepstoalbany.ny.gov/). -BG