Picturing health no easy exercise

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One of the most intriguing moments of TLC’s new reality show “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids!” comes when parents are shown what their young children will look like at age 40.

The participants in nearly every episode are living dangerously: They eat diets filled with sugar and saturated fat and watch way too much television. When the parents see the computer-enhanced projections of their precious kids – think serial-killer mug shots – they are shocked into making radical changes.

The families then have three weeks to overhaul their atrocious ways, under the direction of nutritionist Lisa Hark of the University of Pennsylvania. Hark immediately stresses everyone out by laying down rules such as “sack the sugar,” “family eats together,” “limit television hours” and “exercise together.”

It’s not an easy transition. When forced to eat tofu stir-fry, 8-year-old Robbie Young vomits on the kitchen floor. His older brother, 12-year-old James, threatens to run away when Hark orders a ban on bedroom televisions.

Of course, it’s absurd to think that years of bad habits, usually modeled by the parents themselves, can be reversed in three weeks. But the do-good reality show does raise an interesting question: What does a healthy person look like?

The show’s unique glimpse into the future suggests that poor diet and a lack of exercise lead to unibrows, receding hairlines, broken glasses mended with tape, unfortunate clothing choices, splotchy skin and sullen expressions.

But the real shocker comes when some of the photo-aging shows excessively chubby cheeks and double chins. Their overweight children have morphed into overweight adults, and the implication is that they’re doomed.

Plenty of strong evidence links obesity to heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, and the problems are exacerbated as people age. But in recent years, fat-acceptance groups have rallied against the popular notion that heavy people can’t be fit. People come in all shapes and sizes, and studies have shown that it’s better to be active and overweight than sedentary and lean.

Researchers at the Cooper Institute in Dallas found that mortality rates went up as fitness levels dropped, indicating that fitness might be as important as body size – if not more – when it comes to assessing overall health. Meanwhile, those who have accepted their girth but still exercise can have a much healthier self-image than those stuck in the never-ending cycle of dieting hell.

In extreme cases, weight is a telltale sign that a person is at higher risk of health problems. Both sumo wrestlers and Victoria’s Secret models have forced their bodies into unnatural states, which inevitably stresses the heart. But for everyone in between, body weight is simply one indication of health and not necessarily the first one to consider.

Instead, the primary focus should be on exercise and good nutrition. Then, naturally, the weight will come off and stay off.

Health often is more about vibrancy and energy than anything else, and that comes from being fit. It’s having a certain glow, a sense of confidence and calmness that occurs when people feel good about themselves.

Healthy people have clear, bright eyes, good skin color and shiny hair. They sleep well, can think clearly, have low stress levels and move their limbs easily. One friend, a yoga teacher, pays particular attention to the quality of a person’s breath. To her, fast and labored breathing is a sign of underlying health problems.

Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the tongue – the color, texture, shape, size and coating – when assessing a person’s health. A very red tongue indicates a fever or inflammation. A white tongue indicates some kind of deficiency of energy (qi), blood or moisture.

All of this is hard to show on television, at least on a show that takes itself somewhat seriously. (I can just imagine computer-enhanced images of each child’s face, complete with a view of the tongue, at age 40.)

So the producers turned to the most visible but not always reliable markers of health: cosmetic appearances. At the end of the program, when the parents were shown how their kids could look at age 40 if they lived a healthy lifestyle, the children were smiling pleasantly. Their faces had slimmed down, they wore nicer clothes and, thankfully, Robbie’s unibrow had magically split apart. Now if that’s not the picture of health, what is?

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