Ideafest: Creating a healthy environment for children

When it comes to healthy living, parents face enormous competitors for their children’s attention, says University of Victoria exercise specialist Sam Liu.

From sugary drinks to video games and ever-present screens, the challenges and distractions are many.

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So it’s understandable if parents feel a little overwhelmed, says Liu, assistant professor in the UVic School of Exercise Science, Physical and Health Education. “How do we help them build up the confidence they need so they can provide a healthy environment for their children?” he said.

Liu will team up with exercise-science professors PJ Naylor and Ryan Rhodes for an Ideafest event called Healthy Family Living: Powered By Innovation. The three will lead a series of workshops to showcase innovations to help the whole family achieve a healthy lifestyle.

Topics include reducing the risk of childhood obesity, techniques and technologies that can alter behaviour and game-based apps to achieve better health.

“We try to bring the entire family in,” said Liu. “By focusing on the entire family, it makes it so much easier for the children to carry out a healthy lifestyle.

“And we try to make the process fun — otherwise, they won’t want to do it.”

The presentation will include tips on narrowing what behaviorists call the intention-behaviour gap. Liu points to New Year’s resolutions as an example: Lots of people intend to exercise after Dec. 31, but many give up by March.

“So we’ll look at some of the psychological factors at work,” he said.

“We’ll talk about how we can build up the habits, the social environments and the skills to close that intention-behaviour gap.”

While the session will touch on childhood obesity, Liu said weight and weight loss are not the focus. “We are focusing on behaviours and their lifestyles,” he said. “We are looking at children’s mental health well-being, their eating habits, their physical activity and even their sleeping habits.”

Liu is developing digital games based on computer apps to encourage physical activity, which might be welcome news for some parents.

The game works by assigning characters to players, who earn points through real physical activity. Those points can then be used to upgrade their game characters.

Also shared at the session will be results from a survey of 600 Victoria kids of varying ages on their use of cellphones.

Liu said the findings include some surprises.

“Not all cellphone use is bad, actually,” he said. “Some of the usage actually improves social connections for kids and helps them with friendship.”

Healthy Family Living: Powered by Innovations is set for Monday, March 2, 7-8:30 p.m. in the McKinnon Building, Room 150.

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