Nicaragua Trip Reveals Healthy Lessons for Strong Fast Fit
I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks in a whole different world -- at least, that was what it felt like in Nicaragua. I was out of my comfort zone more times than I can count: bathing with a bucket, riding in a tiny airplane, dealing with giant spiders, sleeping in the pitch dark, walking alone through the jungle, and riding in speed boats over 20-foot ocean waves.
Overall, it was an amazing learning experience and adventure. My trip took me to three places that showed a wide spectrum of Nicaraguan life. For the first week, I stayed in a rural community in northwestern Nicaragua, near El Lagartillo. This community is so small, consisting of 35 families, that it's not on a map. Then I spent some time in a bigger city called Matagalpa, which is surrounded by beautiful mountains and land where they cultivate coffee. Finally, I went to Little Corn Island off the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, where I spent time on a family farm in a tropical paradise. Since public health is one of my favorite topics, both professionally and personally, I made a point to spend a lot of time trying to learn about the state of health in these areas and learning about their most important health issues and best health practices.
I went into this trip hoping I could help to share my knowledge about preventing obesity and encouraging physical activity, especially in Latino youth. However, I didn't see a single overweight child while I was in these areas of Nicaragua. I was impressed, to say the least. I wasn't sure what to expect, since I know Mexico has recently passed the United States for highest obesity rates1, but that apparently hasn't happened in Nicaragua yet. So I observed how they live their lives, and looked for what practices I could teach back home about healthy living. I understand that life here in Minnesota is very different and involves many complex components, and it's not possible in most cases to live the way that they do in Nicaragua. However, here are some simple things we can do here to be healthier and raise healthier youth.
Eat less processed food. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it was apparent while in Nicaragua that it makes a difference. In the more rural areas where they had less access to packaged and processed food, everyone was lean. They don't worry about calories or how much fat is in everything, but are just eating whole foods without all the added sugars and chemicals. Once I got to the city where there was more of these things being sold in all the corner shops, there was more adult obesity. If it comes in a wrapper, package, can or bottle, it's not the best choice. Whole foods are better for you and your kids. Think banana versus granola bar, trail mix of dried fruit and nuts instead of chips, beans instead of mac and cheese from a box, eggs instead of sugary cereal. Cook more meals with whole food ingredients!
Unplug. American kids spend an average of seven hours in front of a screen every day2. In the first community I was at, there was no internet. The teens were talking to each other and their parents, not burying their faces in a cell phone or computer. Many American parents don't limit their kids' use of them. To make this work, parents might start small, with electronics-free Sundays, no electronics after 7:00 pm, or for only an hour per day. There may be complaints, but trust me -- in the end, it will benefit them. They will get used to thinking out of the box and thinking of other activities to do -- maybe even things that are active! There has even been some research that claims that less social media use is linked to more satisfying relationships and improved interpersonal communication skills3.
Get closer to nature. Kids inherently like being in nature. Nurture this in them. Teach them to appreciate and respect it; then being active will come naturally as you start spending more time outside. Get creative, whether that means playing some pickup sports with friends, gardening, exploring or walking or biking to your next destination. Take them to the park, and ride or walk around the block with them. Spending time in nature has been linked to all types of benefits, from increased immunity4, to improved physical and mental health5.
Put family first. Nicaraguan, and Latino culture in general, put great emphasis on family. People that have strong familial ties and relationships live longer and have a higher quality of life. Spend time together and build up that communication and relationship with your children. Families who eat dinner together have lower obesity rates6. Eat your meals together, get active together -- and come to the YWCA and work out as a family!
Not to say that life is easy or better in Nicaragua, because there are many issues that they have to deal with that we don't in relation to access to education, healthcare and hygiene. Nonetheless, it's always surprising to see how little we actually need to be happy and healthy. So while I am very glad to be back home with the luxury of a shower, my comfortable bed, and the internet at my fingertips, I can also carry these messages of health with me and start trying to incorporate little changes like the ones listed above, and I hope you can too.
1 CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mexico-takes-title-of-most-obese-from-america/, 2013.
2 Rideout, Victoria J., Foehr, Ulla G., and Roberts, Donald F. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Rep. Menlo Park: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010.
6 Wansink, B. and van Kleef, E. (2014), Dinner rituals that correlate with child and adult BMI. Obesity, 22: E91–E95. doi: 10.1002/oby.20629