Comprehensive Wellness Conference

In October, I attended a 2-day conference on student comprehensive wellness. Since the School Council paid my registration fee, I undertook to bring back the key messages from the conference and to lead a discussion around what parents would like to see happening at the school in terms of student comprehensive wellness. At the next School Council meeting we will also hear from the school principal, who will talk about initiatives already underway to improve student and staff comprehensive wellness.

With that discussion coming up on Tuesday evening, summarizing the key messages here is one way to ensure I’m well-prepared. So here goes…

Comprehensive Wellness

By the end of the conference, my understanding of this term was as follows:

  • It’s a balanced state of emotional, intellectual, physical, social and spiritual well-being.
  • It’s a process. It’s life-long. It’s something you have to decide to do for yourself, and it involves all aspects of living and lifestyle.
  • It’s not a short-term program, a one-time event, or an add-on to your life. It’s an underlying principle for living and working.

Over the course of the conference program, attendees heard from 3 keynote speakers and had to make some difficult choices in terms of which of the break-out sessions to attend. In my opinion, these were the key messages:

Physical Activity

  • Only 18% of Canadian children aged 10 to 16 are accumulating 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on a daily basis. This rate has held pretty much steady since 2002.
  • For parents, the Canadian physical activity guidelines drop to 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Only 15% of Canadian adults meet this guideline.
  • It’s an increase in sedentary activities – not a decrease in fitness activities – that has fundamentally changed. In fact, screen time is a major problem! Canadian students in grades 6 to 12 are spending 7 hours and 48 minutes per day in front of screens (this is outside of screen time in school). That doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for moderate to vigorous physical activity.
  • Recommendations for physical activity cluster around 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. But surely the other 96% of the day matters! Meeting the exercise guidelines and then sitting there the rest of the day is NOT healthy living. PLUS, if we meet the recommended minimum, we tend to compensate the rest of the day by being more sedentary OR by eating more / less healthy food.
  • We should sweat the small stuff! Opportunities for non-exercise thermo-genesis (NEAT) activities can and should be found throughout the day. We’ve all heard it before, things like use the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to the grocery store if it’s less than a 15-minute walk each way, park at the far end of the parking lot, stand up when you’re on the telephone, etc.

Healthy Eating

  • Many of our food choices are based on time and money. Fast food is cheap and tasty. It hits the pleasure centres in our brains. In fact, high fat, high sugar, high salt foods are more addictive than tobacco and alcohol (but somewhat less addictive than cocaine, crack, meth and heroin). I found this shocking! So much so that I searched out a source to verify the statement – and I found one*!
  • Research shows a positive correlation between the consumption of sugary drinks and weight gain. This includes pop, fruit drinks, sports drinks, vitamin water and (sadly) those tasty drinks from your favourite coffee chain. Each additional daily serving of sugar-sweetened beverage increases the risk of obesity in middle-school students by 60%. Yet 40% of Canadian prairie schools have exclusive marketing contracts with Pepsi or Coke. And how perverse is it that soda pop costs less than milk?
  • There are some great resources on the Alberta Health Services Website including this listing of single serving packaged foods that students should choose most often / sometimes and this listing of take-out / fast food lunches that students should choose most often / sometimes. If a single serving packaged food or fast food menu item does not appear on these lists, then it’s a “don’t choose” item in the context of the Alberta nutrition guidelines for children and youth.

Going forward, the advice was to focus on wellness, not obesity. Exercise affects physical, cognitive and mental health. A significant side benefit of addressing childhood obesity is improved self-confidence. All members of the community need to work together to improve student wellness. Buy-in, policy changes and adequate resources are essential.

Here are a few things for parents to consider:

  • Do your children have TVs, DVD players, computers, cell phones or video game consoles in their bedrooms? Students with one electronic device in their bedrooms are 1.47 times as likely to be overweight as kids with no devices in the bedroom. Also, night-time screen habits negatively affect sleep.
  • Get real – parents, on average, overestimate the physical activity of their children by 147%. Are you being a positive role model, activity encouraging your children to participate in physical activity? One recent study shows the more active the parents are, the more active their children are likely to be. This is especially true when both parents are physically active.
  • If you have the time and interest, ask about the student wellness policies in place at your child’s school. Is there health-related content in the school newsletter (healthy lunch and snack ideas, fitness tips and/or profiles of the health habits and accomplishments of teachers, students and families)? Ask your School Council to organize educational and participation-based workshops for parents – packing lunches, shopping, fitness classes at school, and other topics that will improve your ability to be a good role model for comprehensive wellness.

I came home from the conference and immediately changed a couple of my daily habits. Two months later, one of those changes has been very easy to stick with. The other one has been much more challenging. Later in the week I’ll describe those changes. And I’ll also share highlights from Tuesday’s School Council meeting.

If your child’s school has some winning strategies that are helping to improve student wellness, I’d love to hear about them. Please share your experiences by leaving a comment.

* from page 31 in “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite” by David A. Kessler, M.D.

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