Global Summit on the Physical Activity of Children – 10 Days Until Abstract Deadline!

global pa summitJust a brief note to let everyone know that you have 10 days to get in your abstract or propose a workshop for the Global Summit on the Physical Activity of Children which will take place in Toronto on May 19-22 of 2014 (Full disclosure: several colleagues, including my former supervisor, are heavily involved in organizing the conference, and I will also be an “official blogger” at the conference.  That being said, it still looks like a great conference.).

The conference has a great lineup for anyone interested in pediatric physical activity or sedentary behaviour; confirmed speakers include Adrian Bauman, Shellie Y. Pfohl (Executive Director President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition), Ulf Ekelund and David Dunstan, to name a few.  There will also be a number of debates on key issues, such as active video games are a good or bad thing, and whether we should focus our collective on increasing physical activity or reducing sedentary time.  The debaters in each of those talks are all knowledgeable and excellent presenters, so they should be really interesting events.

I’m planning to present the results from a recent project, and I’d urge you to consider attending as well.  Toronto is a beautiful city, and this is a good excuse to make the trip!


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What caused the childhood obesity epidemic?

Earlier this year I was asked to give a talk on the childhood obesity epidemic for faculty and staff of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).  The folks at UOIT were good enough to record the lecture, so I’ve embedded it below (email subscribers can view the video on the blog).

I should note that the video has been edited slightly to remove several “Think-Pair-Share” discussions with the folks attending the lecture.  So if I appear to make some random segues from time to time, that’s why.

The lecture is based on this paper that I published two years ago in the journal ISRN Pediatrics.  I also featured the paper in a 4-part series here on Obesity Panacea, which you can find here.  I should mention that while I focused on Canadian data when possible, the conclusions wouldn’t have been at all different for American kids.  In the paper and lecture I briefly recap historical trends in body weight (FYI – the doubling of childhood obesity rates over the past 30 years are not due to changing the definition of obesity), then look at the most likely causes of those changes.

For a risk factor to be considered a “cause” of the childhood obesity epidemic, two conditions need to be met:

1.  The factor must be shown to promote excess weight gain in childhood

2.  The factor must have increased before/during the childhood obesity epidemic

Based on those criteria, there are 4 factors that we can say (or at least I say) have contributed to the childhood obesity epidemic with relative certainty.  These are:

  1. Sugar sweetened beverages (e.g. pop)
  2. Sedentary behaviour (especially screentime)
  3. Lack of sleep
  4. Adult obesity

People might be surprised that diet and physical activity aren’t on that list.  But really, it comes down to measurement issues.  It is certainly plausible that diet and physical activity contribute to increased childhood obesity rates.  The problem is that the historical data for both of these variables is really weak, and often contradictory.  The data for sugar sweetened beverages and screen time isn’t of much better quality, but the findings for both of those outcomes is much more consistent than for physical activity or diet more generally.

In the lecture and paper I also look at a variety of other risk factors (changes in gut bacteria, reduced breast-feeding, etc), and while there are some interesting findings there, it just isn’t to the point where you can make a strong conclusion with respect to obesity rates at the population level.

Check out the video, look at our previous series on the childhood obesity epidemic, or download the review paper that started all of this (it’s an open access paper, and can be downloaded or viewed online for free).  Also, my sincere thanks to Drs Ellen Vogel and Meghann Lloyd for inviting me to speak at UOIT – I had a great time, and enjoyed the opportunity to see their new campus.





Category: News, Obesity Research, Peer Reviewed Research | 1 Comment

If you could do *any* study, what would it be?

Anyone who has sat through a thesis defense has heard some variation on the following question: “If you had unlimited funds, what would you do for your next study?”. It’s a good question. Like a lot of researchers, I have various lists of study ideas floating around in notebooks, on my computer, and even on my cell phone. I spend a lot of time daydreaming about different studies – ones that would be feasible during my post doc, ones that will need to wait until I land a tenure-track job, and others that will only be possible if I befriend Mark Zuckerberg.

While I am admittedly more nerdy than the average person, I can’t be the only person who has ever listened to a presentation and thought to myself “Wow, if only we could do ________!”.

So I ask you, people of the internet: If you had unlimited resources (money, lab equipment, trained personnel, participants etc), what study would you run? The study needs to be ethically feasible, but after that you are limited only by your own imagination.

Personally, my ideal study stems from an idea I had after Bob Lustig spoke at one of our lab meetings in Ottawa at the start of my PhD (this is based on my recollection of the presentation, which I think is accurate, but may have morphed with time). If you don’t know him, Dr Lustig is an endocrinologist, and one of the leading “anti sugar” advocates. He argues that we should do all we can to cut sugar (and especially fructose) from our diets, and claims that their inclusion in our diets results in all manner of metabolic disturbance (insulin resistance, weight gain, etc).

Most interesting to me, Dr Lustig also claims that sugar intake can reduce physical activity – his basic argument (if I understand correctly) being that after the blood sugar spike, you get a sugar crash, and no one feels like exercising when they have low blood sugar. And so (the thinking goes) if people were to consume less sugar, they would spontaneously begin to exercise more.

That, to me, is a pretty cool idea. So my ideal study would be to take a bunch of inactive kids who also consume large amounts of sugar (especially in the form of pop, juice, etc). I would measure physical activity and sedentary behaviour levels of all kids at baseline. Then we would randomly reduce the sugar intake of half the kids, and see what happens to their physical activity levels over a period of several months. This sort of study could have really important implications for the way we view energy balance (e.g. can you out-train a bad diet, if the bad diet is actually causing you to train less?), and would be (in my opinion) very cool.

Now it’s your turn. If I gave you unlimited resources, what is the one study you would choose to execute and why?


Category: Miscellaneous | 12 Comments

Walk and Talk: Promoting Walking Meetings

Kirkland Walk & Talk37

Today’s post comes from Afekwo Mbonu.  You can find more on Afekwo at the bottom of this post.

Occupational sitting and health risks

As with sitting more generally, occupational sitting is also associated with increased health risk.  For example, a recent systematic review by Jannique van Uffelen and colleagues in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the majority of prospective studies suggest that occupational sitting is associated with increased risk of both diabetes and mortality (the data for body weight, cardiovascular disease, and cancer was less conclusive).

The good news is that simply sitting less may have measurable health benefits.  As discussed previously on Obesity Panacea, research from David Dunstan’s lab in Australia suggests that frequent light-intensity walk-breaks can greatly reduce the metabolic impact of prolonged sitting.  Pronk and colleagues have also reported that the use of a sit-stand device which reduced overall sedentary time by 16.1% per day, significantly improved participants’ moods (i.e., fatigue, confusion, depression and total mood disturbance) and related health outcomes (i.e., upper back and neck pain) compared to baseline, or periods where the sit-stand devices were not available.

While research in this area is still in the early stages, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that disrupting sedentary time may be beneficial to health.

The way forward: Walking Meeting Rooms

With modern technologies forcing employees into sedentary occupations, workplace pressures to maintain long hours, and social norms to “stay connected”, advising individuals to reduce their sedentary time during the workday can be challenging and in some cases, unrealistic.

Incorporating walking meetings into the work environment may be a feasible solution. Walking meeting rooms are mapped routes that are used to replace conventional meetings rooms where participants are seated.

Walking meetings can be an effective way of breaking-up prolonged sitting without disrupting workplace productivity. Evidence suggests that reducing sitting bouts during the work day is achievable and such changes do not necessarily disrupt workplace performance.

The HALO group at CHEO’s Research Institute began incorporating walking meetings into their routine in 2012 and have continued to use them whenever possible. This is an effective way of breaking up a sedentary work day. In response to increasing popularity, a series of “walking meeting rooms” were added to the CHEO meeting booking system.

A total of 12 mapped out routes were created as walking meeting rooms ranging in time from 15-60 minutes in duration (1-5 km). These were organized through Microsoft Outlook public folders and set up so that all hospital and research institute staff are able to book a walking meeting room– importantly the walking meeting rooms are never unavailable or “booked” as they can hold multiple simultaneous meetings. In a work setting where booking meeting rooms is always a challenge, the use of walking meeting rooms at CHEO has also reduced the pressure to the find adequate space for all scheduled meetings.

One of the CHEO walk meeting routes.

The CHEO 60 minute walk meeting route (click to enlarge)

Although many may cite a multitude of problems with walking meeting rooms, most can be overcome with some foresight and planning. Such concerns may be the inability to take notes, or access the Internet; however, with the advent of smartphones and tablets, many programs can record conversations, search the Internet, and capture the ideas of any creative mind while in motion.

Efforts are underway to promote the walking meeting rooms as a healthy active living alternative to sitting meetings, when the size of the group (ideally 6 or less) and the objectives of the meeting can be accommodated.

The goal of this project to track the use of walking meeting rooms in order to provide a metric of ‘usability’, and ultimately to transform habitual sedentary behaviours to those that optimize employee health and wellness. Alex Munter, Chief Executive Officer of CHEO, boasts that “the walking meeting rooms have provoked a rethink of contemporary meeting habits at the hospital and have initiated a movement to get staff moving!”

Concluding Remarks

If you’ve been reading this post while seated, this is probably a good time to break-up your sitting time; and this shouldn’t be restricted to the workplace. If you’ve scheduled your next meet-up with a friend at a coffee shop and anywhere that would keep you seated for a while, you might want to consider taking your friend on a refreshing walk after you get your latte or crème brûlée and enjoy your delicacies while you walk and talk.

head shotAbout the author: Afekwo Mbonu is a Master of Public Health (MPH) Candidate at Lakehead University. Her research work is focused on school health and the contextual factors within the school environment associated with the adoption of comprehensive school health programs. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Sciences and a graduate certificate in Population Health Risk Assessment from the University of Ottawa.


Category: News, Physical Activity | Tagged | 3 Comments

I Eat Junk Food: Does That Make Me a Hypocrite?


Under that frosting is a delicious cupcake.

Being an obesity researcher, people who don’t know me often assume that I must have an extremely healthy diet. These people are somewhat mistaken.

Let me be clear: I think my diet is pretty healthy. My breakfast and suppers are usually vegetarian. Almost all of the meals I eat at home are home-made from scratch. Although I am involved in the food preparation, I can’t take credit for the healthiness of our meals – my wife has been vegetarian for many years, and since I will eat anything, we tend to eat vegetarian at home (my pre-wife diet involved a lot more Kraft Dinner). I eat lots of fruits and veggies, legumes, etc, and rarely drink my calories.

In contrast, when I eat out, I tend to eat much less healthy food. I enjoy pizza for lunch at least once a week (some weeks it is much, much more than once), and at conferences I often eat all manner of deep fried specimens. I also enjoy the odd KFC. And so when people see me eating out for the first time (or see me eating pizza at work week after week… after week), they are often taken aback.

To complicate matters, I have also come out against food-industry sponsorships of obesity research. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think it’s good for health researchers to profit from the sale of demonstrably unhealthy products (even indirectly). I’m leery of bake sales and video game marathons for the same reason.

My question is – does this make me a hypocrite?  Is it ok for me to advocate that people limit their sugar sweetened beverage intake, argue that researchers should avoid taking money from soda companies, but still consume the odd can of pop ourselves?  Can I actively discourage people from playing video games, or fundraising via video game marathons, while still playing Angry Birds from time to time? If I don’t want to take money from these companies, why am I happy to give them my own?

The way that I view it (or rationalize it), is that it seems unreasonable to avoid all unhealthy behaviours. It might be possible, but it seems to make for a rather dull existence. And since I really enjoy the odd bit of deep-fried meat or TV viewing, I choose to include those activities in my life. And (borrowing a page from Yoni Freedhoff), I try to make a conscious decision to only engage in as much of these behaviours as I need to be happy. That is what I would advocate that others do as well, as it seems like the most realistic method of living a (generally) healthy lifestyle for the long term.

I know that many colleagues view things differently – that bake sales aren’t so bad, but that health researchers should set a good example by engaging in healthy behaviours. I can’t say that I find any errors in that logic, although I don’t think I have the self-control (or the desire) to abstain from unhealthy foods/behaviours altogether.  And I don’t think that total abstinence from unhealthy behaviours is something we should be promoting either.

I know that the folks who read this blog are generally a health-conscious bunch. So I am curious – how do you walk the balance between promoting a healthy lifestyle, while also enjoying the odd bit of unhealthy fun? And is it possible to do so without being a hypocrite?


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Physical Inactivity: The Biggest Public Health Problem of the 21st Century

Earlier this fall I let people know that Dr Steve Blair was giving a free public lecture organized by the local Exercise is Medicine student group at Queen’s University.  The event took place a little over a week ago, and I’m now able to share the full video and audio from that event.

As I mentioned before, Dr Blair is a pretty big deal in the arena of physical activity research, and he’s done a lot of seminal work in the area of physical activity and health (particularly with respect to the “fitness vs fatness” debate).  Dr Blair begins his presentation around the 7:30 mark.  Thanks to Andrea, Sara, and Jasmin at Queen’s for organizing and videotaping the event.

A few disclosures for those who are interested.  I haven’t had time to watch the full video, but am posting this based on similar presentations of Dr Blair that I’ve attended in the past.  Below are Dr Blair’s disclosures, which I have taken from a recent paper in PLOS ONE.

Dr. Blair receives book royalties (<$5,000/year) from Human Kinetics; honoraria for service on the Scientific/Medical Advisory Boards for Clarity, Technogym, Santech, and Jenny Craig; and honoraria for lectures and consultations from scientific, educational, and lay groups which are donated to the University of South Carolina or not-for-profit organizations. Dr. Blair is a consultant on research projects with the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical School and the University of Miami. During the past 5-year period Dr. Blair has received research grants from The Coca-Cola Company, the National Institutes of Health, and Department of Defense.


Category: News, Obesity Research, Physical Activity | Tagged | 1 Comment