A Wish for My Children

By Sarah Colby

I have two sons.

One is six feet and 125 pounds and can’t gain weight. He is mostly sedentary and eats atrociously. A few years ago, when he got a respiratory illness, he got worse fast. He did not have the 10 pounds to lose that he lost. It was scary and to this day, I wish I could personally thank the inventors of the medicines that saved his life.

My second son is about six feet, three inches and well over 300 pounds. He goes to the gym, is physically active (much more than my first child but still less than I would like) and eats a pretty healthy diet. He was 18 pounds at 2 ½ months of age, wore size 16 shoes by the time he was 12 and has always been as far above the growth charts as the charts are wide.

The ultimate irony- I am a childhood obesity prevention researcher.

Obesity is a worldwide public health crisis. Medical cost associated with weight-related illnesses may cripple our economy. Many overweight or obese children of today may become young adults with diabetes. If things continue unchanged for those young adults with diabetes, what will it do for the workforce and economy if they begin to lose their eyesight, kidneys, or feet when they are barely even middle-aged? Will our children grow up to be healthy enough to take care of their own families, contribute to society, or to protect our country? Sound dramatic? It is a realistic concern. And that does not even begin to address the human suffering that occurs at every point of this spectrum.

This threat has been widely recognized and many are dedicated to changing the outcome of this story. The great news is that among young children we are beginning to see positive changes in the overweight/obesity trends. The efforts to reach families, schools, and communities, through education, programs, policies, systems, and environmental change appear to be having an impact. That investment of research funds and time may be making a real difference.

So what patterns of healthy eating might be making a difference? In general, most of us need to consume a variety of foods, in moderation, more natural and unprocessed, enough fiber (we almost all need more beans), lean proteins, more water, and eat all the colors. No, sorry, colorful candies don’t count. If you absolutely want to cut something out of you and your child’s diet- added refined sugar. That is the one thing that I can say is fine for almost everyone to cut completely out of their diets.

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So if I know all of this, why do I still have one child seriously underweight and one child obese? Because it is not that simple. We don’t have all the answers, but we don’t give up. I talk to them about food not because they should look any specific way, but because I want them to be happy, healthy, and living the life they want to live. It is hard to be happy when we hurt and if we get sick from the way we eat and live, then we hurt. I teach my boys to enjoy healthy food and be active. Our job as parents is to provide healthy foods at every meal or snack, have regular meal times, let our kids see us enjoying eating healthy foods and being active, cook meals with our kids, eat together as a family, not use food as a reward or a punishment, and then, here is the key, not focus on what they are eating or their weight. That is the most and best we can do until we have more answers. I also believe that teaching my boys to love and appreciate their bodies and that they are beautiful the way they are, is most important. Weight matters not because we all need to look a certain way or fit a certain body type, it only matters because it impacts our health and our lives. Celebrate you, love you, accept you and live the life you want to live. That is what I wish for my children.


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Sarah Colby Contact
UT Knoxville

Dr. Colby is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Tennessee. She is an obesity prevention behavioral researcher with a focus on health communication through novel nutrition education strategies (including marketing, arts and technology). In addition to her focus on novel communication strategies, she has research experience with young children, adolescents, and young adult populations; community-based participatory action research; Latino and Native American populations; food security issues; and environmental and economic influences on food behavior.

Get Out and Play!

by Dawn Coe

Growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I spent most of my free time outside playing with the neighborhood kids.  We played sports and games such as basketball, street hockey, “kick the can” and “washers”.  Although I spent a great amount of time outdoors, very little of that time was spent engaged in nature.  The urban setting offers few opportunities to truly experience nature.

After high school, I moved to Michigan.  Living in Ann Arbor, I began to experience nature primarily through hikes and trips to the arboretum.  I later settled down with my husband on Lake Michigan, taking advantage of the lake and hikes in the surrounding area.  Eight years ago, my family moved to Knoxville.  We immediately fell in love with the area and started going on family hikes shortly after my daughter’s birth; taking her on her first hike at only two weeks old.   As a parent, I know the importance of physical activity for children.  Therefore, my husband and I have always modeled a physically active lifestyle for our children.  I love that our children have grown to love the outdoors and have a natural tendency towards being active.

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Favorite activity on the Michigan lakes!
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Going on a family hike.

As a pediatric exercise physiologist, I have always known the positive benefits of children engaging in an active lifestyle.  As my research has evolved during my time at the University of Tennessee, my research line has veered towards the measurement of outdoor activity and activity behaviors in children.  Through this research, I have found that activity in nature provides a host of additional benefits to children than what is seen with physical activity alone.  Outdoor play encourages risk taking, providing opportunities for children to become more aware of their bodies as well as engage in vigorous activity.  Play in nature also provides a variety of sensory experiences (i.e. motor, visual, tactile) and the opportunity for active, imaginative play.  These types of experiences not only benefit the child physically but also mentally.  In general, young children (3–5 years old) should accumulate approximately 180 minutes of activity per day, while school-aged children (6-17 years) should accumulate at least 60 minutes of daily moderate (brisk walking) to vigorous (jogging) physical activity that is developmentally appropriate.

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The view from the top of Mt. LeConte

I feel the multitude of benefits of outdoor activity provide a strong impetus for me to continue encouraging my children to engage in outdoor play.  While both of my children currently take part in athletic pursuits, they still enjoy our family time outdoor together.  We try to periodically “unplug” and enjoy fun days in the Urban Wilderness or Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Resources detailing the importance of nature play in children can be found in Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and on the Children & Nature Network website (http://www.childrenandnature.org/).


Dawn Coe Contact
UT Knoxville

Dawn P. Coe, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sports Studies within the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  Dawn is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.  Dawn’s research focuses on physical activity assessment in youth, natural playground activity and behavior, and the impact of physical activity and physical fitness on academic success in children and adolescents.  Dawn enjoys watching her children play sports and spending quality time outdoors with her family.