I’m currently at the 2012 London Olympics observing history unfold before me. Every time I watch U.S. athletes stand on the podium to receive their medals, whether it be Gabrielle Douglas’s inaugural time or Michael Phelps’ record-setting 21st time, I am reminded about our journeys to this podium, and in particular our commitment to maintaining a healthy lifestyle by balancing a nutritious diet with regular exercise.
However, as Olympians, even though many of our careers may sometimes shorter than we’d like and endlessly exciting, we are presented with this unparalleled opportunity to serve as role models to the millions of children worldwide who are captivated by the Olympics well after our professional athletic careers. It is an occasion to be a transformative presence in the lives of children by inspiring their passions, honing their leadership skills and encouraging them to challenge the status quo.
This comes at a time when childhood obesity is on the rise, which causes an elevated risk for a myriad of chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart diseases, various types of cancers, osteoarthritis and psychosocial problems. Childhood obesity is of great concern in the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities. Indeed, roughly 1 out of 5 NHPI high school youth are obese, which is one of the highest percentages among all racial groups in the United States, and 1 out of 3 NHPI high school youth are likely to be overweight or obese.
As an Asian American, these statistics are not just numbers to me; each captures a snapshot of the lives of real people in our communities. They serve as a sobering reminder of the health challenges confronting our AAPI community but more importantly they motivate me to teach children at an early age that the balance between a nutritious diet and regular exercise is integral to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The most important takeaway that I have learned from skating professionally for most of my life is that there are things we have to do before we can do the things we want to do. Indeed, my daily routine was brutal when I was competing full time. I had 12 hour days where I would eat the same foods at the exact same time of the day for 365 days of the year. I’m certainly not trying to convey that everyone should exercise or maintain a diet like that of someone who is training for the athletic competitions but I do think it is very possible for us to make a consistent effort to have a more balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
We are all well-positioned to spread this message of the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle by balancing a nutritious diet with regular exercise message through the decisions and choices we actively make every day. While individual lifestyle changes are necessary, our efforts must also be community-wide involving a concerted effort from teachers, parents, schools, community leaders and elected officials in order to promote the message of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
This is just the beginning of many conversations we hope to have as we continue to shine the torch on the health living community.
Apolo Anton Ohno is an American short track speed skating competitor, an eight-time medalist in the Winter Olympics, and serves on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.