Placing weight on men’s obesity

Can children help their fathers become healthier?

Professor Philip Morgan 

Internationally-renowned obesity expert for men, Professor Philip Morgan, believes so and through a suite of innovative programs he is proving that a family approach to fitness is key to tackling one of the world's major public health epidemics.

The Co-Director of the University of Newcastle's Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition, Professor Morgan's dedication and commitment to addressing obesity and promoting healthy lifestyles in children has seen him receive 27 academic awards - including nine national and international research excellence awards - over the past six years.

The world-first Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids program is one example of the obesity prevention initiatives Professor Morgan has designed that has been proven to help fathers manage their weight, engage children to eat more healthily, be more active and improve the overall quality of life of families.

"Men are seriously under-represented in weight loss research, which is a major concern considering 70 per cent of Australian males are considered to be overweight or obese," said Professor Morgan.

"Dads initially sign up to our programs to lose a few kilos, thinking that it would also be nice to spend some quality time with their kids participating in some fun physical activities," he said.

"During the program they come to understand the profound influence that their parenting practices, actions, behaviours, and attitudes have on their children – this realisation becomes a driving force behind their motivation to get fit and become more engaged in their children's lives."

The multi-award winning, evidence-based program uses the novel concept of reciprocal reinforcement by encouraging children to act as 'little personal trainers' for their dads in the home. In turn, the fathers are motivated by the importance of role modelling to engage with their children.

"The magic in Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids comes from both the dads and kids working together, motivated to help each other, and in turn changing their own behaviours," said Professor Morgan.

"For example, the children are told it's your job to help Dad eat well, so it's important for you to eat your veggies at the dinner table because these veggies are really important for your Dad and he might copy you. 

"Similarly, Dads in the program are shown how influential they can be in getting children to eat veggies by trying them in front of their children. In doing so, both are eating veggies for each other and may not have done it for themselves."

The physical activity sessions are interactive, highly active, fun and focus on elements found in extensive research to be associated with optimal child development outcomes across physical, cognitive and social-emotional domains. This includes fundamental movement skills, health-related fitness-based activities and rough-and-tumble play. The program also has the added benefit of helping fathers become more involved with all aspects of their children's lives, leading to enhanced social and emotional well-being for their children.

Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids has been tested through University of Newcastle-based trials and evaluated through numerous local community roll-outs across the Upper Hunter and Hunter Valley, and Great Lakes regions in New South Wales, Australia. Resources are available for communities and organisations anywhere in the world, with many of the messages transcending cultures.

"In general, a father's love for his child, his desire to do his best for that child, and the unique way fathers' play, physically interact and engage with their children; are universal feelings and behaviours that are incorporated and targeted in the program as motivating factors to deliver results in sustainable lifestyle change."

Tapping into the psyche of men has also been key to the success of Professor Morgan's other key research programs, with Morgan stating that, compared to women, men are reluctant to sign up to weight loss programs.

"The lack of understanding of motivators for weight-loss for men has led to programs that do not account for gender differences in design and delivery, and many men consider them to be unappealing," Professor Morgan said.

"This is concerning, especially since the burden of disease falls disproportionately with men due to greater abdominal fat tissue which greatly increases their cardiovascular disease risk," he said.

"With obesity costing the Australian economy approximately $60 billion per year, there is a real need for evidence-based, realistic, wide-reaching and easily disseminated programs that take into account the male physiological and psychological profile."

Professor Morgan's internationally acclaimed programs help men lose weight but don't outlaw the beer or foods they enjoy or make participants undertake unsustainable exercise regimes.

In the SHED-IT program, weight loss messages are tailored for blokes and delivered in a light hearted manner with the latest research simplified in an understandable and palatable manner. The program also utilises technology and engages with participants through a DVD, the internet, video messages and SMS.

SHED-IT has been described by the prestigious Annals of Behavioral Medicine journal as "a momentous step toward addressing the long overlooked need to develop behavioural weight control programs that appeal predominantly to men and have wide reaching potential to impact obesity among the male half of our population."

Professor Morgan's Workplace POWER (Preventing Obesity Without Eating like a Rabbit) is targeted directly towards men and is delivered in the workplace. The program uses a DVD resource or information session, an interactive website and a number of gender-tailored resources to educate men on how to improve their own lifestyles. Workplace POWER was recognised with an inaugural National Preventative Health Award in 2013 for the best intiative in Workplace Health and Well-being for large workplaces. 

"Instead of prescriptive diets to follow – which is likely to turn men off - these programs educate men about embedding physical activity and healthy eating into their day and use language and approaches they understand and relate to," adds Professor Morgan.

"This can range from teaching them how to read food labels to understanding energy balance, overcoming urges and increasing incidental activity."

Well regarded in his field, Professor Morgan has secured grants from the NH&MRC, Australian Research Council Discovery, Australian Research Council Linkage, Heart Foundation, NSW Health and large industry and community grants to help address the growing epidemic.

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