Membertou School students a step ahead in chronic disease prevention program

Ms. Lucy Joe’s Grade 8 class at Membertou Elementary School won the 12th annual walking challenge held by the Union of Nova Scotian Indians.
Ms. Lucy Joe’s Grade 8 class at Membertou Elementary School won the 12th annual walking challenge held by the Union of Nova Scotian Indians.

Ms. Lucy Joe’s Grade 8 class has claimed victory for Membertou Elementary School in the 12th annual walking challenge held by the Union of Nova Scotian Indians (UNSI) during Diabetes Awareness Month each November.

The walking challenge, which gets kids moving by giving them pedometers to carry throughout the month, is one of several community activities that UNSI, the tribal council representing the province’s Mi’kmaq people, holds with the goal of reducing health inequities for Indigenous communities. The challenge is also part of the First Nations Food and Fitness Initiative, which features a healthy eating challenge and community cooking classes and is funded through Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Chronic Disease Innovation Fund.

There’s an emphasis on physical activity and healthy eating during Diabetes Awareness Month because the rate of that chronic disease is two-times higher in Indigenous communities than the rest of Nova Scotia, according to the First Nations Client Linkage Registry.

“It keeps creeping down to the younger age group,” diabetes community consultant Ann Gottschall said. “Diabetes among the Indigenous youth is one of the fastest growing pediatric chronic diseases in the world.”

Type 2 diabetes, which makes up 90 per cent of cases, did not emerge in the Indigenous population until the mid-20th century and has only started developing among children in recent decades, but it can have devastating consequences. Type 2 diabetes occurs when glucose cannot serve its purpose as energy for the body due to insulin resistance and, particularly if developed at a young age or not managed properly with healthy lifestyle choices, can increase the risk of complications such as kidney failure, heart disease and blindness, among other serious health problems.

That’s why Gottschall helped develop the walking challenge and accompanying community activities back in 2001, as part of the federal government’s Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative program. This year alone, 289 students from Grade 7 and Grade 8 classes stepped it up, from five different schools that belong to Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, a provincial group that advocates on behalf of the educational interests of Mi’kmaq communities.

Students in Ms. Joe’s winning class walked an average of 6,811 steps, or 5.2 kilometres, during this November’s school days.

“There are students who normally would not have been active at all, but using the pedometers has helped them to get more active,” said Gottschall, who kicks off each Diabetes Awareness Month by teaching participating children about the Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines for youth.

Gottschall then returns to classrooms throughout the month to educate students about diabetes prevention. Visual aids such as glucose wands, which show what happens to red blood cells when blood glucose levels are too high, are used in conjunction with Canada’s Food Guide and Health Canada’s Focus on the Facts.

“I find the kids are very interested in the amounts of sugars that are in things,” she said. “Like, they’re just shaking their heads when they see it.”

It’s vital to get kids thinking about and taking care of their health because diabetes, for instance, is particularly hard to manage for teenagers, as hormonal changes affect blood glucose levels and impact the amount of insulin needed, Gottschall explained.

Early intervention such as the exercise and education programs led by Gottschall can help adolescents walk down a much healthier path. The end goal, of course, is to have a province with healthy people and healthy communities for generations, including Ms. Joe’s Grade 8 class and other participating classrooms.

“I find that very rewarding, that you’re opening somebody’s eyes about (their health).”