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Wellness Starts With the Young

Antonio S. Williams founded Fit University to help children understand how to eat better and stay healthy.

Antonio S. Williams, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health and CEO of Identity Branding and Marketing LLC. His passion for health and wellness among youth led him to found Fit University, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering children to make healthy food choices at home, at school and on the go. He has given numerous lectures on fitness branding and marketing throughout the United States and in countries such as Korea, Greece and Spain. He has also been featured in the New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times, the International Journal of Sport Management, the International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship and ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, as well as on Fox News. Williams served on the 2012 Super Bowl Host Committee and sits on the ACE Industry Advisory Panel.

ACE: In your day-to-day life, how do you see the impact of the obesity epidemic in the lives of children at Fit University, your students, friends and family, or the people you pass on the street?

Antonio S. Williams: I see people living in a state of confusion because of the mixed fitness-related marketing messages they are inundated with every day. In every medium, there are carefully crafted messages luring people to eat fast foods, go on extreme diets and participate in potentially harmful fitness regimens. What is most disturbing is that these messages are more prominent, more abundant and craftier than the messages we as fitness professionals are sending.

I also see people frustrated and defeated because they’ve bought into marketing gimmicks, only to find themselves in a worse physical and emotional condition than before they started. It is disheartening to see children battling obesity be hampered by the physical inabilities of their bodies, despite their passion for sport and physical activity. It is just as disheartening to see parents—with the desire to help their child—be confused by the marketing claims on food packages that are supposed to aid them in providing nutritious choices.

ACE: Why do you believe it’s especially important for parents, teachers and fitness professionals to help children develop healthy habits at an early age?

Antonio S. Williams: It is increasingly important to help children develop healthy habits because they are generally more vulnerable and are often the target of unhealthy food marketing and of technologies that foster inactivity (i.e., video gaming). The adolescent stage is a unique time in a child’s life in regard to his or her views on food, physical activity and self-esteem. For many adolescents, the pendulum has shifted and they are now more influenced by their peers and media messages than by their parents. What’s more, research has shown that behavior habits developed in childhood may continue over the course of people’s lives.

ACE: How have you seen your work at Fit University change the way children live?

Antonio S. Williams: At Fit University we have the philosophy that in order to change the way people live, we must meet them where they live. For example, from our research we know that children often eat meals on the go with their parents, mostly out of necessity because of their busy lives, and not because it’s their first choice for food. For this reason, Fit University’s MVP (moderation, variety, play) youth program discusses eating at fast-food restaurants.

We want our participants and their parents to know that we understand they will eat fast food from time to time, and our goal is not to eliminate it, but rather to empower them as consumers. As Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better,” and that is what I have seen from the children who have participated in our program—they are doing better and making better decisions. They are less susceptible to fitness- and nutrition-related marketing gimmicks, they understand the unique physical needs of their bodies, and they are passing the knowledge on to other members of their family.

ACE: What misconceptions do you believe fitness professionals have about people who may be struggling with their weight? Why do you feel it’s important for them to overcome those misconceptions before they can help people begin to adopt healthy change?

Antonio S. Williams: I have come across fitness professionals who feel that obesity will end when people stop being lazy and get motivated. In contrast, I believe that the methods, philosophies and packaging we use to encourage people to live a healthy lifestyle are crucial to their successes. Apple doesn’t blame their consumers when the iPhone doesn’t sell. Instead, the company searches internally for solutions, which could mean changing the product or its marketing instead of blaming the consumer. I do understand that the body is unlike any gadget and that people must take responsibility for their own health and wellness, but we as an industry must conduct an internal analysis of the effectiveness of our approach. Failure to do so now—at a time when obesity is at its worst—will be a great disservice to our industry and the people we serve.

ACE: What advice would you give to people who may not know where to start when it comes to losing weight?

Antonio S. Williams: I would advise people to start by educating themselves. Not to the point of “analysis paralysis,” but enough to help them determine what wellness plan and goals are right for them. I would also encourage them to seek out reputable sources for information so they can identify the products and services that will help them achieve their weight loss goals. I would tell them to do a self-assessment to figure out which of the foods and types of exercise they already enjoy will fit into their goal of losing weight.

In my stint as a trainer and strength coach, I found that people are surprised when they realize that many of the things they love are actually healthy for them and that “getting healthy” doesn’t have to mean deprivation. Finally, I would encourage them to have a repertoire of strategies—like keeping healthy snacks in the car, incorporating short workouts into their day and using mobile fitness applications—to ensure that the perils of life don’t hinder their success.

Sidebar: Editor’s Note:

Bridging the Gap is a series of interviews conducted by American Council on Exercise (ACE) with professionals throughout the fitness and allied health industries, as well as our partners in the corporate world. Our hope as an organization is that this column will start a conversation among each of those entities about the impact of the obesity epidemic and how we can all work together to eliminate it by 2035.


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