Eat more fruit and vegetables. Take more exercise. Quit smoking… How often do we fail to keep New Year’s resolutions? It is not easy to change our habits once we are adults. But children are another story: they learn quickly and adapt more easily. That is why it is better for them to acquire healthy habits at an early age. And that is the goal of Fundación MAPFRE’s Healthy Living program.
TEXT: CANDELA LÓPEZ
How often should a child eat sweet snacks and candy? How healthy are frozen potatoes? Why is it important to cook eggs properly? Up to what age is it necessary to drink milk? How should I thaw out meat or fish to keep it in good condition? At what age should we start drinking coffee? Should vitamins be given to a child who feels tired?
A large proportion of the population is unable to reply correctly to these seemingly straightforward questions. This can be a source of health problems: food poisoning, cardiovascular diseases, insomnia or obesity. According to a 2016 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), some 42 million children worldwide are overweight. “And this is not the children’s fault,” the report’s authors stress. “It is due to several factors: biological factors, inadequate access to healthy foods, a decrease in physical activity in their daily lives, etc. All this calls for a global, coordinated response,” they clarify.
The report is unequivocal in its conclusions and warns all countries that they must adopt urgent measures to combat obesity. Among them, “educate children, parents, teachers and leaders on the importance of eating healthy food and reducing the intake of sugars and fats. In addition, they must promote physical exercise and combat sedentary habits,” the document recommends. According to the WHO, if action is not taken swiftly and current trends continue, the number of overweight children will reach 70 million by 2025.
The organization also reminds us that overweight children are more likely to become obese adults and, compared to children who are not overweight, they are more likely to suffer diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. These are ailments, which, in turn, are associated with an increased probability of premature death and/ or disability.
Thousands of children attended the Healthy Living workshops throughout 2016
Simplifying the complex
Fundación MAPFRE has been working for several years along the lines recommended by the WHO with a specific program called Healthy Living, which is run in both Latin America and Europe, including Malta and Turkey.The aim of this project is to promote healthy living habits from an early age by targeting the two most important scenarios of childhood: the family and school. In what way? Above all, by running workshops for children and by providing parents and teachers with all manner of educational resources: nutritional and health-care handbooks, physical activity guidelines, audiovisual material, tips from experts and even radio programs.
All of these resources are produced according to a basic premise: simplifying what seems complex. For example, how to instill healthy eating habits in children? “Prepare meals together, whether lunch, afternoon snack or dinner; go shopping together and, in the market itself, teach them about the different types of food; explain which are healthier and show them which ones are only available at certain times of the year,” explains the educational guide for families.
Family and school, essential factors
The role of the family is of vital importance for learning healthy habits and distinguishing risky ones. As regards dietary guidelines, this is the most suitable setting for transmitting healthy habits: “if we are able to promote a varied, well-balanced diet, teach them to eat slowly and chew their food well, we will then be enabling our children to acquire good eating habits,” experts from the Healthy Living program explain. “It is highly beneficial if the whole family keeps active. Suggest physical activities to your children with which they can have fun and strive to achieve goals. It does not matter if they have to try out different activities until they find the one they like the most. Physical activity helps us to share time and experiences together and keep the whole family in shape,” the specialists add.
The school and education professionals are likewise very important in the formative years of childhood and adolescence, a period during which many of the habits that will be ingrained for life are acquired. And how can teachers convince their pupils of the importance of taking exercise, for example? The Healthy Living program proposes stories, comics, songs, games and videos to help them convey this message in a fun way, so that the children can assimilate the ideas almost without realizing it. And it provides them with a series of animated characters capable of attracting the attention of the little ones: like Professor Lunatus, a magician of youthful appearance who explains to the children everything he knows about which food is the healthiest and how often they should practice sports.
the family is the most suitable setting for transmitting healthy habits
In addition to these educational resources, Fundación MAPFRE runs highly dynamic, play-based recreational workshops for elementary pupils right in their own school. For an hour or so, children are engaged in activities that help them understand the importance of sticking to a healthy diet, discover the dangerous consequences of incorrect nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle, correctly interpret the food pyramid and assess the need for rest, among other things. Thousands of children attended the Healthy Living workshops throughout 2016. In Spain the figure reached 30,103 pupils; in Brazil, over 70,000 and, in Mexico, more than 100,000. Other attendance figures included Panama (5,400), Malta (2,400), Turkey (1,246), Puerto Rico (8,405) and Paraguay (2,061).
There is still a long way to go, but some encouraging data reveal that the educational work carried out in recent years is starting to bring results. In Spain, for example, excess weight among children aged six to nine fell by 3.2 percent between 2011 and 2015, according to the 2015 Aladino Study (Monitoring Growth, Nutrition, Physical Activity, Child Development and Obesity in Spain) conducted periodically by the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality, and AECOSAN (Spanish Consumption, Food Security and Nutrition Agency). Overweight children fell from 44.5 percent to 41.3 percent.
In the 2011 study, it had not proved possible to reduce the childhood overweight figures for ten years. In 2013, the number of children affected began to fall, from 45.3 percent to 43 percent. “The data are good, but insufficient. We must therefore continue working all together to ensure this trend continues,” the current Health Minister, Dolors Montserrat, warned last November, during the presentation of the study
The value of sport
Last March Infanta Elena de Borbon, as Fundación MAPFRE project director, and Javier Fernández, president of Sporting de Gijón soccer club, signed a collaboration agreement to run 150 workshops in Asturias within the Fundación MAPFRE Healthy Living program which will benefit some 2,500 elementary schoolchildren. The aim of the courses is to promote sport and healthy lifestyle habits among children. Following the presentation of the agreement, Infanta Elena and representatives from the Asturian club attended the first of these workshops, which was held in the cafeteria of the Escuela de Fútbol de Mareo, the sports complex that serves as Sporting de Gijón’s headquarters and training facilities, apart from being the training ground for the next generation of soccer players. The training provided in these facilities is not limited exclusively to physical fitness and technical skills, but also seeks to teach them social and human values. The agreement with Fundación MAPFRE falls within this context.