During the last six weeks, middle school students in New York City and the surrounding counties have taken my challenge to increase their physical activity and eat healthier foods. As we countdown the final days of the Healthy Steps to Albany competition, I have another challenge - not just for the participants in this year's program, but for all of our children, their schools and families: keep it going.
Since first launching the Healthy Steps initiative two years ago, and throughout the current competition, I've spoken to students about how they've adapted their daily routines - whether turning off the TV to go for a run or passing up the chips to enjoy some fruit. However, they weren't the only ones changing their activity levels and diets.
As a program that targets middle schools students, I expected the kids to talk about the impact Healthy Steps had on their own lifestyles. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that their parents, caregivers and teachers had also modified how much exercise they did and what they ate. More importantly, the kids noticed and talked about the participation of their schools and households and were proud of this shared effort.
While these healthier habits developed as part of the contest, they have also laid the foundation for a balanced lifestyle - one we can help our kids achieve if we work together. Our support is essential for their success and requires more than words of encouragement or a reward. We need to get involved and while participating in initiatives like Healthy Steps is a start, we must go further.
Instead of limiting our food and exercise awareness to a period of weeks, we should make this consciousness a central component of our lifestyle decisions - from what we serve at dinner to what we do with our free time. We must also raise this consciousness in our children and that means making them a part of the food shopping, preparation and activity decisions.
Does this mean taking the kids to the grocery store? It can - but it can also be about asking for their input on what sort of produce to buy, talking to them about food groups and introducing them to new dishes. While I do the shopping in my home, my son will help make our shopping list, put away groceries, and make dinner so that he is familiar with the items we turn into our meals.
Does this mean foregoing the "fun" food? Not at all. As I've written before, a conscious lifestyle is a moderate lifestyle. The lesson of moderation is one we can demonstrate to our kids by limiting things like cupcakes or pizza to occasional treats. We need to teach them - and remind ourselves - that to be healthy, we do not need to deny the things we enjoy, but avoid the daily indulgences that have contributed to our current health issues.
Does this mean signing our families up for boot camp? It doesn't. Whether you live in a suburb or near the subway, there are plenty of ways to get active in your community - even without a gym membership. The time we share with family on the couch can just as easily be spent outside - playing a game of catch, going for a walk, exploring a new park or neighborhood. Substitute a trip to the movies for a visit to a fresh food market. I will be joining our Healthy Steps winners on a tour of Muscoot Farm in Westchester County, which offers a variety of educational programs for kids of all ages, a new experience and memorable lessons about the way food is raised and its journey to our table
What this does mean is making the changes needed to save our kids - the first generation that may not live as long as their parents. We are increasingly familiar with the threat that childhood obesity and related illnesses pose and, thanks to the advocacy of First Lady Michelle Obama and programs like Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, childhood obesity is finally beginning to receive the national attention that this health crisis demands. The statistics that show the prevalence of childhood obesity in youth and adolescent age groups, and the rising incidence of Type 2 diabetes, asthma and hypertension are more than just figures - they're our sons and daughters.
We know the consequences of inaction. It is time for us to exemplify for our kids what we want them to be, how we want them to live. Yes, it's a challenge - but it's one that will offer the greatest reward: the health of our children.