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Spring Break: The importance of togetherness and recognizing its impact on health and wellness

March 10, 2020

This guest post was written by Dr. David W.L. Ma, Director of the Guelph Family Health Study and Professor in Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph, and Jonathan Guss, Senior Advisor to the Guelph Family Health Study.

Spring break will see many families spending holiday time together in March.  It’s an opportunity to get away from the hectic daily work schedules and child activities.  Today’s hyper busy family unit is probably over-scheduled, sleep deprived and chaotic. Yet at break time, each of us has experienced the joy of chatting quietly with our kids, whether waiting in line for a film, riding a ski lift, or enjoying a family meal – a chance to listen patiently, perhaps to offer some guidance without judgment.

It is in the spirit of the family that this blog post highlights many other roles of families. Increasingly, the role of the family in nurturing healthy habits, environmental sustainability, giving children agency and health promotion are important areas of reflection and research.

Growing research shows that our present-day challenges have long term consequences on the health of our children – both physical and mental health. This is highlighted by the work of the Guelph Family Health Study (www.guelphfamilyhealthstudy.com) at the University of Guelph.  Researchers have been working with nearly 350 families with young children to define the factors that contribute to family and individual wellness.

In the past 5 years, many lessons have been learned. Food waste contributes to a loss up to $1500 a year per family, to 7500 five-minute showers worth of water, and to one quarter of the yearly emissions from driving a car. Of the food waste, for instance, 50% is from fruits and vegetables, the very things nutritionists are encouraging Canadians to eat.

Parenting practices are also important ranging from the dinner table talk to media usage.  Children respond differently to cues from mothers and fathers. So, kids pay attention when mom involves them in meal preparation and kids are more responsive to eating their vegetables when dad eats his broccoli.

Almost 100% of children snack, accounting for one third of all daily calories which includes a high proportion of sugary snacks. And, to our surprise, we discovered that girls tend to have more sugary snacks than boys.  These findings suggest that tackling food literacy is an important area for more research and action. 

Many of these behaviours and skills learned during early childhood will likely become long standing habits that endure into adulthood.  When kids are young, it’s the best time to imbue them with healthy habits and tastes that may last a lifetime.  Many of the families who joined the Guelph Family Health Study cited the need to support healthy habits and behaviours as the reason why.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” — the families in the Guelph Family Health Study are believers.  Many of our families are interested in the health of their children in the present and future and have the desire to set their children on the right path. This is only achieved by recognizing that everyone in the family is needed to make this a success story.  And the children themselves must develop a sense of agency – that they face choices and that the way they think about them and make their decisions matters.

In many provinces, almost half of provincial budgets are dedicated to Ministries of Health.  It would be more accurate to call them Ministries of Disease and Chronic Disease Treatment. Intuitively, prevention and health promotion programs should be at the heart of our health care system. In contrast, an enormously large proportion of health care dollars are spent addressing the symptoms of the problems, and not the problems themselves. Less than 1% of funding is directed towards health promotion and illness prevention programs and research. Hospital beds, healthcare providers, expensive treatments and medications are in ever increasing demand. This is not a new trend, but many politicians state that our health care system faces or will face a tipping point when we can no longer afford our system – when its sustainability in its current form will be the critical issue.  Cuts are not the answer. 

That is why health researchers at the University of Guelph and many others across Canada are sounding the alarm, highlighting the need for more research and programs that support health promotion and disease prevention. By providing the evidence, we hope to inform and convince politicians to take a longer-term view about health promotion — take a long-term view of an endeavour that exceeds their 4-year election mandate. They need to be bold and support health promotion programs and policies that nurture healthy habits in families – the building blocks of a healthy population. A focus on young families and their health will ensure that future generations enjoy healthy lives and an affordable health system.

In summary, research of the Guelph Family Health Study shines a light on multiple areas of family life contributing to health. In future posts we will explore these areas in depth.