Photo: Teach your children - by example - how to be healthy

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

My newest grandchild is 18 months old and even has a nickname, Gunny. What a joy it is to escape the complexities of adulthood to focus on him, just playing. Recently, I had to muck out the compost on a typical Vancouver winter day — it was pouring rain. So I dressed Gunny up in boots, sweater, gloves, and rain slicker, and out we went.

As each shovelful turned up worms, I encouraged Gunny to pick out the big ones to feed to the turtle. He dove in with gusto. Anything moving and colourful immediately attracted his attention. It took a while to empty the fully composted side of the box and turn over the newer material but he kept digging away with his toy shovel and never lost interest or wandered off.

I cannot imagine what is going on in my grandson's brain. He is learning about an entire world with no reference points to start from. A while back, his other grandfather was chopping wood, and as he was piling up the pieces, there was Gunny, barely able to walk, struggling to carry a piece of wood to the pile!

Composting? Piling wood? One might wonder what meaning those activities will have for a child who is going to grow up in a big city, parked in front of a computer screen or text messaging on a cellphone. I believe they have everything to do with that child's future. You see, I am as alarmed by the astonishing rise of childhood obesity as I am about the ecological crisis. Children learn by the example set by adults.

When my daughter Severn was 12 years old, she gave a speech at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, appealing to adults to think more about children and the kind of world we are leaving them. Her words struck a nerve and created a media flurry. At one point, a reporter commented, "Yeah, we've done a pretty lousy job of taking care of the environment, but you kids are different; you'll lead the way." It was an attempt to compliment her, I suppose, but I was astonished by her reply. "Oh," she said, "Is that the excuse for adults to do nothing? Besides, you are our role models. We copy what you do, so how can you expect us to be any different?"

I was dumbstruck by the depth of her response. She was absolutely right. How many parents who smoke are successful when they tell their children not to smoke? "Do as I say, not as I do" is a pretty weak way of trying to influence a child's behaviour.

That brings me back to my grandson's generation. If they are surrounded by role models who are too busy to spend time playing, who watch television or play computer games to pass time together, how are they going to know that walking, jumping, and moving are what our bodies need to stay healthy? We evolved from the natural world where everything we did involved our muscle power. Harnessing the power of animals was a huge advance, but on an evolutionary scale, it was extremely recent. Our bodies must move to stay healthy.

Exercise is an important factor in reducing a number of our major health problems, from diabetes to stroke, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and cancer. Our bodies evolved to be active. But since we started harnessing cheap, plentiful energy in oil, we've used machines to do our every bidding. Exercise, like concern for the environment, shouldn't be a special activity for which we need experts, gyms, and equipment. It has to be a part of the way we live.

Moving, walking — anything involving the expenditure of energy — is exercise. Driving a few blocks instead of walking or biking, or using escalators and elevators instead of stairs deprives our bodies of what they need to stay healthy. I go to the gym, but not to look buff. (At my age, that is a long-gone hope.) I do it for my health. Exercise is my medicine. Now that energy prices are rising, we have a chance to rethink the way we live. We must include exercise as an important health component.

In the meantime, as a caring grandfather, I want to spend more time hiking and playing with my grandchildren.

February 16, 2011

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Dec 12, 2012
11:53 AM

Excellent article. Thanks for spreading the word of true health in the world! It doesn’t take much to change our ways for the better- just a choice and a little bit of different action.

Oct 04, 2012
5:05 PM

I am in grade 7. I agree with what you say. I want to spend more time with nature. It is my mom which does not bring me to nature usually. She makes excuses about not walking to school and I really want to walk to school instead of being driven. I love nature. I do not know does my mom really love me or not. My mom is discouraging me from playing with nature. I need help.

Apr 14, 2011
11:40 PM

Children do need the open air and wild places. I am amazed, here in the UK, by the number of children who know absolutely nothing about the countryside or where their food comes from. Parents should be teaching them — assuming they know themselves.

Feb 19, 2011
3:43 AM

Thank you. Breathe taking. You inspirer me to continue to work to stop the breaking and not to be breaking. . Your Legacy book is amazing. Gave it to everyone I could. Read excerpts from your story about the salmon as a pray for our holiday dinner. My faith is in the children and our need for beauty. Your grand daughter’s speech should be sent to and heard by every governmental body, officials and adults in the world. What a beautiful soul. My son introduce me to you- hearing you on the radio while he was traveling in Canada. You moved him so much that he had to call right after your program to tell me how moved he was by your ideas and voice. You are our inspiration and voice of love and reason. Thank you and your family from the heart for your love and work for the planet and all life.

Feb 18, 2011
2:55 PM

To bad not much changed . NYSX & TSX are in charge.

Feb 18, 2011
11:58 AM

As a chiropractor I couldn’t agree more. As a tax payer into our health care system I also couldn’t agree more. We have such an opportunity to reduce cases of morbidity and early mortality if only we shifted our focus from a primarily crisis care health model to one of prevention and wellness. We need to educate and encourage our children to be active and we need to remind our adults that they too used to run, jump and play and should continue to do so. Thank you for bringing this up.

Feb 17, 2011
4:59 PM

Awesome David! Thanks for this. Your daughters speech is/was amazing.

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