I recently, had the opportunity to meet up with a high school friend I hadn’t seen in 15 years. She said to me, “You’re the same size you were in high school.” My husband quickly jumped in with a, “It’s all genetics!” I was thinking, "Geez babe, yes, I know I have good genetics but give me some credit for working out and eating clean (the majority of the time!)."
This conversation got me thinking more about family lineage and how the health of your parents affects your health.
As a former elementary PE teacher and current college professor, I hear a lot from parents and students about their concerns for their family’s health. Young parents worry that their overweight child won’t be interested in sports. Middle-aged people are focused on their aging parents’ quality of life and how they will care for them in the future. And then there’s your own personal health and habits, and questioning if you’re being a good example for the rest of your family.
My parents are in their early seventies and are lean, active and eat a balanced diet. Growing up, my Mom cooked all our dinners. She had a great rotation of meals, and all they were all served at a kitchen table where the whole family sat together and enjoyed the food and company. In high school, Mom made me an enormous bowl of fruit salad to take every day for lunch. My parents didn’t have gym memberships (that wasn’t even a thing back then) but they stayed active just by doing life “stuff”—shoveling snow, cutting grass, hiking in the woods behind our house—there were always things to do outside.
Your parents’ lifestyle, attitude and actions about how to live shape your own. What if my Mom didn’t cook our meals, and we ate at Burger King or McDonalds? What if my parents were sedentary and didn’t encourage my sister and I to play sports and exercise regularly? My life would have been very different then, but especially now.
If you find yourself thinking how your family’s health could be different, it’s time to take action. Set up a time to talk with your parents and relatives. Ask everyone how they view their health and quality of life in the past, present and what they foresee changing in the future.
Some suggested topics for when you have a chance to talk:
A family history of poor health is not a death sentence. Just because someone you’re related to has heart disease doesn’t mean you’ll have heart disease. Sure, you are at greater risk, but if you avoid habits such as smoking, eating too much and not moving enough, you can reduce the chance of turning on the genetic markers for “hereditary” diseases.
Do your research and decide what familial health issue is most important to your family. What is one positive thing you can start doing to prevent the onset of this disease?
Did your parents provide you with the skills to lead a healthy lifestyle? If yes, have you been able to continue with these habits? If they didn’t guide you properly, it may be something that you’re still struggling with. Discuss the actions and behaviors that brought you to where you are today. If you’re unhappy with the path you’re on, you can always change.
It’s human nature for habits—both good and bad—to transfer from generation to generation within a family. With a little work, you can lose the bad. What actions are currently increasing your kids’ health risks? What can you do for them tomorrow that can prevent this unhealthy cycle from continuing?
This is an exercise in self-reflection, and a good initial step toward changing habits both for yourself and the people you love most in your life. Good luck!