We in Alabama love to compete. Nothing gets our hearts stirring like the fortunes of our football teams. There are thousands of us whose blood runs Crimson, Orange, Maroon—the many colors of our high schools and colleges. We often invest 11 young men with our great hopes and high expectations, and when they succeed, we feel like we succeed.
And we do darned well! Consider the accomplishments which our colleges and universities have historically had.
But there are other crucial areas where Alabama has a serious losing streak. You’ve seen the statistics. We are among the fattest, unhealthiest states – with some of the fattest, unhealthiest kids. If unhealthiness was a competitive sport, we would be at the pro level in everything from childhood diabetes to obesity to physical weakness.
Our universities and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) are keenly aware of these interconnected problems and, while we are researching "magic bullets" to help fight obesity, we know there are specific issues which need to be addressed right now. These boil down to what we eat and how much physical activity we get.
A member of a 4-H club pledges his or her "health to better living." A century ago, a young person who was going to spend the day ricking hay needed many more calories than a kid who spends the day using a computer to work on school assignments. And none of those farm calories would have come from a plastic bottle or a cardboard box, unlike today’s pre-fabricated snacking and dining options.
We in 4-H are working diligently to include "learning by doing" nutrition and fitness at every level. We often cite the wonderful Junior Master Gardener program as a great model for activity and nutrition education. "Shovel, hoe, weed, pick! Shovel, hoe, weed, pick!" sounds like a fine form of calisthenics. And when young people learn that a fresh, ripe tomato tastes great and will help them live a healthier, happier life–what other choice will they make?
Some of the most active 4-H kids are those visiting the Alabama 4-H Center. Tromping on nature hikes, climbing the rock wall and spirited games burn lots of calories, but the Center has also made great leaps in orienting kids on the benefits of healthy eating. The traditional camp fare of pizza and French fries has evolved into salad bars and fresh vegetables. Snacks of Cheesy Poofs and syrupy soft drinks have been replaced by fruit, whole grains, milk and water.
Throughout 4-H, there is an increased emphasis on activity and nutrition. 4-H club agendas include activities to build strength, flexibility and "burn off energy." The Youth Development arm of the ACES is also working in partnership with ACES’ nutrition programs to pass along nutrition knowledge and awareness.
The most cutting-edge program under development is called Body Quest. Through the medium of animé, the Japanese-styled animation seen in Pokémon, elementary students become "Body Quest Warriors" who view health and fitness as a life-time quest. They demonstrate their bravery by trying new fruits and vegetables, and they train for the quest by becoming more physically fit. It’s an exciting adventure, designed for iPads and the latest technological applications.
Ultimately, however, the health of Alabama’s children and adults is not the duty of the schools or public agencies. Good health can only be achieved when families and individuals take responsibility. That means making wiser choices on nutrition and fitness. For example, what do you put in your shopping cart?
The number of obese Americans has skyrocketed over recent year, so genetics (or being "big-boned") is not an excuse. Before 1997, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent. Today, only Colorado rates less than 20 percent — while Alabama’s 31 percent obesity rate trails only Mississippi’s 34.4percent. That is called an epidemic.
So, what can you do?
First, parents are examples. Your attitude toward food and fitness will become your child’s attitude. The research shows that demeaning and embarrassing kids is not a path toward physical and mental health or toward good relationships. Engage your child in conversation about food choices and likes and dislikes. Take them with you grocery shopping and involve them in preparing healthy meals. Let them become the family experts on good nutrition and health. Set a goal of spending as much time being active as you spend with TV or on the Internet.
At the end of every football season, good coaches start planning for the season ahead. They develop their training regimens and begin preparing their players for what lies before them. A man in a hounds-tooth hat once said: "It’s not the will to win that matters-everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters."
It’s up to us to help Alabama kids "prepare to win." However, it’s not just for one season, it’s for their lifetimes.
Chuck Hill is the 4-H Youth Development Specialist.