Eat Like a Bird, Leap Like a Lemur: Combating Childhood Obesity through Animals
Yvonne Hurley & Amanda Galiano
Docents, Little Rock Zoo
(AZAD Education Grant Recipient)
Little Rock, AR
According to CDC.gov, childhood obesity has more than tripled over the last 30 years. In 2008, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. This is a problem we will be dealing with for decades to come.
One part of the solution is promoting outdoor exercise, particularly in natural, stimulating environments. Public access to parks, including zoos, has been shown to greatly benefit physical fitness. Outdoor exercise is associated with “greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.”* The National Parks Service claims simply taking an hour-long walk in a natural environment can bring about a drop in blood pressure and heart rate because of the immediate relaxation experienced. A study
conducted on Japanese Zoos** found that zoo visits also decreased blood pressure. Study participants walked more than 6000 steps during each visit and demonstrated a statistically significant increase in happiness after their visit.
Zoo docents are commonly tasked with educating the public on the animals’ diet and exercise routines, but zoos may be the perfect place to talk about human diet and exercise too. Since zoo guests are commonly interested in these animals’ behaviors, tying them to human behavior could be a poignant teaching moment.
Little Rock Zoo Docents will present summer camp classes this year to three different age groups: 4 years to kindergarten, grades 1-3 and grades 4-6. We designed healthy animal lifestyle camps for the 4 years to kindergarten and grades 1-3. We had originally planned to incorporate all age groups, but grades 4-6 typically do “Wanna be a Keeper.” The committee decided to continue that, since our keepers enjoy hosting those classes.
For our healthy lifestyle classes, we designed recipe and activity booklets that centered on animal diets. For example, we had “parrot parfaits” as a snack. We explained to the children that parrots eat a wide variety of healthy fruits and nuts, and they should do the same. We had the kids try a wide variety of “animal diets.” It’s believed that children will imitate behaviors, and we hope by serving them gorilla pops (frozen fruit blends) instead of candy, we will encourage them to imitate the gorillas.
The activity booklets encouraged physical through games and animal movements. Animal observation was incorporated. For example, a visit to great apes was a lead in an “ape walk.” We led children in dance centered animal movements and encouraged them to continue these activities at home.
Our docent group contains two pharmacists, a former registered dietician, a dance instructor and a retired health education teacher who act as liaisons for the health and fitness info.
Just 60 minutes of physical activity a day would virtually eliminate childhood obesity.*** Zoos have a unique role in presenting conservation related information to the public, but recent studies suggest that we can play a role in conserving health along with habitats. Children connect with animals, often imitating their habits for fun. We believe zoos have a unique opportunity to leverage that connection to make an impact
on childhood obesity. Unlike healthcare settings, zoos have the opportunity to teach lessons of physical fitness and healthy eating in a fun, playful setting without being preachy by teaching fun, healthy habits.
Examples of our booklet will be available via the Internet after the conference. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge Environmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (5), 1761-1772
** The effect of visiting zoos on human health and quality of life. Sakagami T, Ohta M. Anim Sci J. 2010 Feb;81(1):129-34.
*** Age and gender differences in objectively measured physical activity in youth. Trost SG, Pate RR, Sallis JF, et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2002;34:350–5.