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March 24, 2023

Older men can help reduce childhood obesity by serving as role models

Men who need a reason to adopt a healthy lifestyle should consider the effect it may have on the younger generations in their life

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Obesity Role Models Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

By serving as role models, older men can show younger generations that a healthy lifestyle is within reach, potentially reducing childhood obesity rates.

The findings of two new studies should serve as a call to action for men over 50 to show younger generations that a healthy lifestyle is within reach, and that it's OK to redefine masculine norms. 

Though the studies involved younger groups of men and women, the research reflects trends and underlying behaviors familiar to older men – obesity and stereotypical masculine behavior. For 50-plus men who need a serious "why" to motivate a healthy lifestyle, the findings do just that.

By serving as role models, older men have the potential to impact younger adults who are, in part, living with the remnants of behaviors handed down by prior generations. 

The first study, published March 5 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sounded an alarm for the health of young adults. It showed rising rates of diabetes and obesity in people ages 22 to 44. These conditions increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, among other consequences. According to the study, obesity and diabetes are even more common in young Black adults, which the researchers attributed to structural racial inequalities.

The second study, conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common project, found that children of nurturing fathers have fewer weight concerns. Breaking down traditional male barriers, in which all emotional support is relegated to the mother, results in a number of benefits, according to the researchers.

Together, these studies present a screaming call to action, one that should provide every guy and, particularly men over 50, with an incentive to get off the couch. Committing to a healthy lifestyle and vocalizing support for a deeper level of nurturing by fathers can influence the behavior of one's adult children and, potentially, grandchildren. 

You can make an important contribution to reversing these trends by championing a new model of manhood in which men demonstrate concern for their health and are equally open to accepting new parental duties.

Tackling obesity

The rise of obesity in America has been significant. In 2021, 32.04% of U.S. adults were obese. Locally, the obesity rate was 33.3% in Pennsylvania, 28.2% in New Jersey and 33.9% in Delaware. 

According to a study led by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, half of U.S. adults will be obese by 2030, and for several years now, experts have characterized obesity as a public health crisisThe increasing incidence among younger people creates an all-hands-on-deck call, and this means setting an example. 

To prevent obesity, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people follow national guidelines for diet and physical activity, and get adequate sleep. And the experts say that diet and exercise can help prevent and manage diabetes, too.

If we want young adults to adopt these practices, what better way to encourage them than to show that us old timers can do the same? 

Nurturing: Men are up to the task

Readers of my book, "Crack The Code," know that my passion for men's health and expanded roles for fathers stems from my lived experience. As a single dad with two boys under my roof through the bulk of their youth, I took on roles traditionally delegated to women. Back-to-school nights, packing lunches and dental appointments were all part of my job description.

Now, my case was extreme because I operated solo Monday through Friday, but I adapted. I learned that parenting is multifaceted. Sometimes, you need to be the disciplinarian, other times you play psychologist. In any event, I would argue that my experience, coupled with the research on fathers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrates that men are up to the task of nurturing. 

Fathers that spent more time with their children during COVID strengthened their father-child relationships. As a result, the children exhibited better emotional balance, improved social competence and academic achievement. Men have the ability to perform nurturing roles, and the benefits are well documented. What's needed is a change in the boundaries of male roles, an embracement of emotional engagement.

Easier said than done

Whether it's living healthy or encouraging fathers to bond with their kids, the common denominator is the challenge of changing American culture and social norms, namely masculinity.

When the American Psychological Association published guidelines in 2018 that characterized traditional masculinity as "harmful," it prompted an angry response from conservative critics who said that masculinity was under attack. Since then, factors such as unemployment among older men, depression, opioid abuse and a significant affiliation between masculinity and political ideology has further complicated the dialogue. 

Eighty-six percent of men surveyed for a Pew Research Center poll said that they face pressure to be emotionally strong, with 41% characterizing this as "a lot" of pressure. This same poll showed wide gaps between Democrats and Republicans in their views of masculine men. In short, reaching consensus on a new definition of what it means to be a "man" is no easy lift.

That said, we've got an emerging crisis. Obesity is rising among younger Americans, and we have an opportunity to give our children (and grandchildren) a step up in life if we show them how to live healthy and that it's good to be more engaged in a child's emotional well-being. 

If us boomers can see through the clouds of discontent, focus on what's important – without going down an ideological rabbit hole – and lead by example, we'll have healthier and happier families. If there was ever an incentive to live healthy, it's the fate of the next generation and the one after that. And that's a powerful reason to get moving.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.

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