UVic Torch -- Fall 2004
Spring 2005,
Volume 26, Number 1

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Racing Against Diabetes

Racing Against Diabetes
Prof. Joan Wharf Higgins, MA '87, and diabetes prevention program coordinator Tara Taggart, BA '02: rec centres and health promotion can "reduce the burden on health care."
Photography by HÉLÈNE CYR

Research at the grassroots level shows how-one step at a time-community recreation and health promotion can help to prevent diabetes where the risk is highest.

ODELIA SMITH HAS COVERED A LOT OF GROUND—walking from Victoria to the village of Tlatlasikwala on Vancouver Island’s northern tip and back—without going far from home. She did it in a four-week virtual foot race with fellow students and teachers from the Saanich Indian School Board’s Adult Education Centre. Equipped with pedometers they recorded daily steps and mapped their progress. By the end, they not only reached their 460-kilometre goal but far surpassed it.

For Smith, a 29-year-old member of the Tsartlip First Nation, those were the first steps on a journey toward healthier eating, improved fitness and the loss of 91 kilograms. “I woke up. I realized what I was doing to myself. (Now) I walk every day and I eat fruits and vegetables every day. It’s an awesome feeling.”

Getting people moving was a goal of the four-year Saanich Peninsula Diabetes Prevention Project, led by the university’s School of Physical Education and supported by Health Canada. The study, concluded this spring, explored community recreation’s role in controlling Type 2 diabetes among higher-risk groups: single parents and low-income families, seniors, people with disabilities, and Aboriginal communities (where Type 2 diabetes occurs three to five times more per capita than in the general population).

More than two million Canadians have diabetes, with three million cases expected by the end of the decade. Among those with diabetes, 90 per cent have Type 2 (occuring when the body can’t properly use the insulin it produces). The disease can be delayed or prevented by maintaining a healthy body weight through fitness and nutrition.

“The anticipated number of people who will be living with Type 2 diabetes is really astronomical,” says Joan Wharf Higgins, professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Health and Society. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so how can we curb the epidemic at the local level, in the community?”

The first two years of the study were largely spent with community organizations, identifying issues. Given the size of the Saanich Peninsula, transportation—its availability and cost—was seen as a key impediment to fitness participation. Other concerns involved time, cost, and a sense of intimidation if one wasn’t already athletic.

Two major initiatives came from that assessment: the Aboriginal Walking Programs and A Taste of Healthy Living, a series of eight-week sessions promoting fitness and nutrition. Other programs included a nutrition newsletter for food bank clients, cooking classes, and a Web site (www.healthypeninsula.ca).

A key partner was Panorama Recreation, which offers swimming, skating, racquet sports, fitness classes, and wellness programs for all ages. Still, some were unaware of the centre; others had misconceptions about its programs.

One solution was to base the Taste of Healthy Living programs and a health fair at Panorama (the Aboriginal Sport Development Centre hosted a second fair). Single parents or seniors feeling isolated in the community were introduced to new people and new opportunities. “Isolation breeds isolation,” Wharf Higgins observes, “so if you can somehow put a crack in that by whatever means, it really is the first step.”

Part of it, too, adds program coordinator Tara Taggart, BA ’02, was about “allowing people a comfortable and supportive environment to try something new that they may not have had the opportunity to try.”

Kit Brodsky joined the Taste of Healthy Living program to learn the importance of exercise and healthy eating in preventing Type 2 diabetes. Now, with two sessions under her belt, Brodsky is a program facilitator and has lowered her blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and her LDL or “bad” cholesterol—all without medication. She also dropped 30 pounds in the process. “I’m what they refer to as a success story,” she says. She now enjoys regular yoga sessions and strives each day to record 10,000 aerobic steps on her pedometer.

Aboriginal Walking Program participants reported that, apart from the fitness payoff, walking provided a break from routine, helped alleviate stress, and provided time to think and relax. Joint participation by students and staff also increased camaraderie, says teacher Kaleb Child, who with teacher Tye Swallow coordinated the walking program at the Adult Education Centre. “The first year we did the Vancouver Island race, it was kind of like an ongoing intramural program,” Child says. “It (created) a real sense of solidarity, team spirit and school spirit.”

The next race grew to 2 1/2 months, with the target destination spanning Canada. With more pedometers, participation climbed to about 75 people. It also extended to the Tribal School, with a three-month program for preschool to Grade 9 students.

The pedometers were critical. Apart from being fun gadgets they “let them celebrate their accomplishments on a daily basis,” Child says. Competition was important, too. With the race component, “people didn’t want to lose a step.”

While individual successes were realized through the Diabetes Prevention Project, broader goals were met as well. The initial eight partners grew to 20. The resulting awareness among community groups about their respective programs and their ability to coordinate, not duplicate, services, has been a success in itself, Wharf Higgins says.

Another goal is to simply maintain the momentum. The project’s legacy includes a pedometer-lending program at the Sidney public library and the training of senior and Aboriginal fitness leaders. The Adult Education Centre is lacing up for its next “race,” thanks to funding from the Saanich Indian School Board for 20 more pedometers. And then there are people like Brodsky who, after reaping the personal rewards of fitness and good nutrition, are sharing that wisdom with others. Ideally, Wharf Higgins would like to see a funded position to coordinate a continued Peninsula program.

In a larger context, Wharf Higgins says the project has underlined the “need to urge policy makers and the public to shift their view of public recreation beyond fun and games, to the higher status of essential services.” Her point is that if recreation centres received more support for their programs and facilities, it would be easier for people to participate, get healthier, and reduce the burden on health care.

“The dwindling public purse and increased user fees make what is theoretically and historically a public service, intended to benefit all citizens, accessible only to those who can afford to pay. Rather than funneling more and more tax dollars into public health care, we would argue that earmarking a small portion to disease prevention and health promotion makes much greater sense.”

Jennifer Blyth is a freelance writer in Victoria.  

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