Archive for July 2007

Fat Friends: Obesity Study Hard to Swallow

July 27, 2007

The “fat friendship” story was all over the media this morning. Yikes.

The implications of this are so upsetting I’m already eating my seventh Hershey’s kiss.

(Good news: check out the “nutritional information” on the package. Serving size is nine!)

Really, though, could it be true that just having a fat friend or spouse can somehow make you fat?

So says this new research based on the famous Framingham Heart Study, which is tracking more than 12,000 people over 32 years. “Social networks play a surprisingly powerful role in determining an individual’s chances of gaining weight, transmitting an increased risk of becoming obese from wives to husbands, from brothers to brothers and from friends to friends,” reported the Washington Post.

My heart hurts just hearing this. Aren’t fat people already shunned and mocked enough? Now they have to take responsibility for everyone’s fat as well? Yikes. (And she pops Hershey’s kiss Number Eight.)

Sure sounds credible, coming from Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard Medical School, and to be published tomorrow in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Watch out,” the new study seemed to imply. “Stay away! Get too close to a dreaded Fat Person, and their fat will magically and irreversibly rub off on YOU!”

As an afterthought, at the end of the Washington Post article and also at the CNN report I saw this morning, reporters note that the opposite also seems to be true: when one person loses weight, so do their friends.

This is the concept behind Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, running clubs, and many other health-oriented groups. We inspire each other to achieve our goals.

Why wasn’t this the headline?

Why aren’t researchers putting half as much energy into promoting healthy behaviors as they are into exploring obesity?

We already know what prevents obesity: daily physical activity and relatively healthy food choices. You don’t have to be a nut about it. You can have some Hershey’s kisses now and then (she says, finishing off Number Nine.)

The key is to move: moderate to vigorous activity on most days.

But by all means, please please please don’t abandon your fat friends out of your own fat-o-phobia or misinterpretation of this research.

Fat friends do not cause obesity; overeating and under-exercising do.

The moral of this story is not to avoid fat people.

It’s to be a leader yourself, inspiring all of your friends and colleagues, fat, thin, and middle-sized, to follow in your footsteps, literally, and choose a path of daily physical activity.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Not-Overwhelming Disability

July 20, 2007

At my Aunt Mary’s recent memorial service, my mother, describing her sister’s “severe, paraplegic stroke,” said that “the stroke was overwhelming, but Mary was not overwhelmed by it.”

For 16 years, between the ages of 63 and 79, Mary could not use her left arm, could only limp on her left leg, and could not speak – at least, not the way most of us do.

She could say only five words: “Yes,” “No,” “And,” and “Oh Boy.”

But oh boy, did she communicate. With intonation, inflection, facial expression, and sheer willpower, Aunt Mary asked myriad questions and expressed surprise, doubt, alarm, fear, humor, amazement, pride, compassion, excitement, gratitude, and every other conceivable message.

It didn’t happen automatically, or fast. To communicate with Mary required incredible, almost saint-like patience on the part of her husband, Peter, and other family members and friends. Every conversation started with 20 questions, and expanded from there. “Are you asking about something in this room? Something that happened today? Are you hungry? Is the person you’re talking about in our family?”

In Mary’s case, the problem was not just aphasia – the inability to speak – but apraxia: the inability to indicate what one wants. So she couldn’t point to a water glass, or move her good hand the way one might if one wanted to mime drinking. She could only say her five words. And we could only guess.

Did we all get frustrated? Sure. We also gave up sometimes. When all the “yes no and oh boy’s” in the world failed to tell us what she wanted to say, we shrugged and smiled together. Mary was a good sport about that, laughing rather than crying after her sincere and focused efforts to tell us something, or ask us something, proved fruitless.

My friend Madelyn Jennings tells me that, incredibly, her brother-in-law, also a stroke survivor, has the exact same vocabulary as my aunt did. Maybe those are the core essential communications: that’s all any of us really need:

1) Yes: affirmation

2) No: Negation

3) And: Let’s continue the conversation, and

4) “Oh Boy”: The whole range of emotion.

Many people become depressed in response to such a stroke; Mary did not. Although “the stroke was overwhelming, Mary was not overwhelmed by it.”

And therein lies Mary’s legacy. She amazed us all with her positive spirit in the face of devastating loss.

All of us face the prospect of losses, changes, and disabilities, in ourselves and our loved ones, over time.

May we all rise to the occasion, as Mary did, with humor, persistence, and grace.

Yes. Yes. Oh boy.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Dads, Daughters, and Sports

July 10, 2007

Gard Skinner, founder of and a fan of We Are All Athletes, asked me,

“If you were speaking to a room full of men who, perhaps, had few sports experiences themselves growing up….

How would you–as executive director for an organization that is devoted to opening health doors for every single child– recommend they introduce their shy or cautious daughters to sports?”

It’s not so much that daughters tend to be shy or cautious. It’s that parents sometimes overlook a child’s natural athleticism if that child happens to be female. Fathers in particular might not know how to encourage and support a daughter’s interest in sports, especially if the fathers haven’t seen themselves as successful athletes.

The best time to start is early. Studies show that young boys have a ball tossed in their direction much more often than young girls do.

Dads can help girls develop strength, coordination, and appreciation for their own bodies by engaging them in myriad physical activities – playing catch, wrestling, hiking, camping, climbing hills, running, skipping, playing on monkey bars, even slapping high-five in celebration – to begin to give girls a sense that their bodies are sources of joy, wonder, and accomplishment.

Kids – especially one’s own kids – are inherently attractive, it seems to me, and fathers, with the best of intentions, often compliment girls for how attractive they are, hoping to instill a sense of positive body image that way.

However, what girls need much more is a sense of physical accomplishment, success, joy. This develops through physical activity.

Gard also asked, “How would you, in your experience, help us communicate that we are not trying to push our daughters to be “jocks,” but rather, to give them a healthy lifestyle and the benefits that go along with it?”

Gen X fathers know lots of strong, athletic women; many of them married one. But their mothers were raised in the pre-Title IX generation and had few sports opportunities. So we’re still in a transition phase, with many men not fully comprehending how important sports are for girls and women.

My own father, a physician and hospital president, “didn’t want his daughter to be a jock.” That conversation came up when I was a teenager considering colleges, and interested in their athletic as well as academic programs.

Stanford was acceptable to him; but the Stanford basketball program somehow threatened his sense of who his daughter should become. Homophobia was probably part of that; in my generation (I was born in 1956) athletic girls were often assumed to be gay.

When, after Stanford, I played professional basketball and had an opportunity to travel throughout Europe, Dad began to appreciate that sports had literally taken me far.

Later, when I took up golf (his sport) we had many happy days on the golf course together.

Just a few years ago, while playing 18 holes together, he finally proudly introduced me to a friend of his with this line, “This is my daughter. She’s an athlete.”

I almost fell out of the golf cart, I was so surprised – and happy. Sure, I’m proud of my professional accomplishments, and I’m glad Dad is too, but it meant a lot to me to have him finally affirm this other important aspect of my identity.

Probably the best way for dads to fully appreciate the positive benefits of sports experiences for their daughters is to participate themselves. That way, they’re modeling physical activity, physical fitness, and healthy competition — and reminding themselves on a daily basis how much joy we can all find in sports.

That’s key too – the “all” part. Daughters aren’t really very different from sons, despite the small publishing industry that claims the opposite. Kids are just people, and people inherently love to move.

Unfortunately, female people will hear many messages about the uber-importance of physical appearance. Fathers can go a long way toward counteracting the negative influences of these messages by showing daughters that what matters most is not what your body looks like, but how it can move, express itself, stay healthy, get strong, and accomplish great things, alone and with teammates of all kinds, including family members!
Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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A Whole Lot of Skinny, Unhappy, Unhealthy People

July 3, 2007

The news on the front page of the Washington Post today (“Way to Shrink, Grow Fat Is Found”) did not make me jump for joy. And I’m the kind of person who DOES jump for joy – unlike those who only jump to burn calories.

Georgetown University scientists have discovered that these three things are true of mice:

1) If you stress them out (more on stress techniques for mice later) and feed them junk food, they gain more weight than their little mouse-peers who eat junk food without being stressed out; and

2) If you inject mice with Certain Stuff (more on that later too,) they don’t gain weight, even if they’re stressed AND eating junk food.

3) Injections of that same Certain Stuff can actually shrink fat deposits by up to 50 percent in two weeks.

You see why jumping for joy comes to mind. Surely, if these results hold true for humans, this Certain Stuff is going to become bigger than Google itself.

Can you imagine the line of fat people lined up to get these shots? Now add to that line all the imaginary fat people (those who obsess over fat that isn’t really there,) and the pharmaceutical company that gets the patent on this stuff is going to get one heck of a fat payday.

Here’s the catch, though. Imagine the impact on physical activity.

How many people currently exercise for the health of it? Or, better yet, the sheer joy of it?

Most people already get zero exercise.

And from the looks on the faces of the people at my gym, the large majority who exercise at all do so because of some grim determination to avoid getting fat.

What if all these people stopped riding the stationery bicycle and doing Pilates? What if the only place they ever ran was to the doctor’s office, for their next fat-blocking shot?

Here’s what would happen: There would be a lot of skinny, unhappy, unhealthy people in the world.

We know that physical activity is essential to help prevent osteoporosis, heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, and a zillion other bad things that can happen.

We know that physical activity is an antidote to depression.

We know that people who sit around on their butts all day — even if those butts become fashionably thin — get depressed and sick.

Which is why I’m not jumping for joy.

Neither are the stressed mice, by the way. To stress them, scientists made them stand in cold water or endure the company of alpha mice. They were trying to create the mouse equivalent of chronic human stress, such as sitting in traffic – or having to endure the company of an alpha boss.

Standing in cold water does not exactly bring to mind Abu Gahraib, but for the record I do not support mouse torture techniques, and hate the thought that scientists get paid to think this stuff up.

The other thing I promised to explain is what I called Certain Stuff. It’s a substance that blocks another substance that triggers the stress-induced obesity phenomenon, apparently. Read the Washington Post story if you’re the kind of person who can understand that neuropeptidies are not a form of detergent.

All I know is that anything that gives people another excuse to avoid moving is going to be one big fat mistake.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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