The health of Barbadians has come under more scrutiny recently when the 2019 Indigo Global Wellness Index rated Barbados fifth from bottom, largely because of our poor showing on obesity, diabetes, and hypertension; i.e. because of our poor eating habits and lack of exercise.
I know that some of our health professionals have criticised the index because of the metrics used, but at the same time, nobody needs to tell us that we fail badly on the incidence of chronic non-communicable diseases. Just ask anyone at the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre or Sir Henry Fraser or Sir Trevor Hassell, who have devoted so much time and energy to this issue.
And, of course, the government, through the Ministry of Health, has been, for quite some time, pursuing policies and programmes intended to address these problems. One of the approaches taken is to induce people, especially school children, by taxation and other measures, to lower their intake of sugary beverages.
This is where the snow cone conundrum comes in. If within the bounds of the school we limit the access of children to sugar-sweetened drinks, what happens when they exit the school and find the ever-popular snow cone vendor waiting for them? The snow cone, even without a topping of condensed milk, is probably the most lethal sugar high a child can get (this is my guess, but I assume someone has calculated the calories in a snow cone). One snow cone can undo all the good work of limiting the access to sugar within the school compound.
So what do we do? This is the conundrum. Snow cones are a traditional part of Bajan culture, and the vendors are ‘small men’ looking to improve their lives through entrepreneurial activity. Banning them, removing them, or taxing them out of existence would be not only politically risky, it would also be stupid. We need to work with them to let them come up with solutions themselves. If the initiative comes from them it is more likely to be successful.
I want, however, to put in my two cents worth based on my own experience, which is to focus less on diet than on exercise as being the easier path to follow in combatting chronic non-communicable diseases.
For some 25 years, I was a constant recreational runner and would run at least one 10K a year and the occasional marathon. To enjoy a 10K, I had to stay fit during the year and train seriously at least three months before the race. What I consistently found was that when I upped my weekly mileage from 12 to 25, I would start losing weight dramatically. Now, I was already fairly trim (165 lb. with a height of six feet.), and eating sensibly, but when I found my clothes dropping off me, the only recourse I had, ill-advised as it may have been, was to eat high-calorie foods just to level off.
My point is that while diet and exercise are both necessary, exercise, rather than diet alone, is by far the better way to control your weight. Moreover, exercise has many other health benefits: lowers blood pressure, cholesterol and so on. Plus it makes you feel so good. Did I mention it leads to better sex?
So I suggest, that, in addition to working on a proper diet for children, we focus nationally on getting children — and adults — to exercise more, and the best and easiest exercise is walking/jogging/running. Exercise is also a driver of other healthy habits. When I started running 40 odd years ago, I was a heavy smoker and my greatest incentive to stop smoking was to improve my running times. Similarly, my running led me to eat more healthy foods. The other lesson I learned from running is that doing it in a group is both fun and helps you stick to your programme.
In schools, there should be a mandatory programme of walking/jogging/running for half an hour every day. I’m not talking about sports or physical education, just plain old running. There are several ways you can make it group fun. One way is for a group to run slowly in a line spread out behind a leader and when the leader blows a whistle the person at the back sprints to the front, and then the next and so on. This combination of slow with intermittent bursts of speed is the quickest way to cardiovascular fitness.
Apart from schools, we might start a national fitness programme in workplaces.
I recall when I was working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Culloden Rd., I would take my lunch hour and go to the gymnasium, run a few laps, have a quick swim and shower and then back at work. Or I would run around the Garrison at lunchtime and have a shower back at the office (yes, all offices ought to have showers for their employees).
The then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Branford Taitt, told me, “Peter, you have to stop doing this, man. Some of my colleagues tell me obviously you ain’t got no work to do in your ministry because I see your permanent secretary running the Garrison in the middle of the day.” Now, if I had been out at a restaurant stuffing my guts and swilling drink, no one would have said anything.
We could also help residential communities to organise their own programmes for a combination of reductions in weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar and cholesterol levels, primarily through exercise. In addition to having the usual community parks, how about an objectively measured ‘healthiest communities of the year’ programme?
The only thing limiting us is our imagination.