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Do As I Say, And As I Do



If you are going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk. Maybe throw in a few jumping jacks or a downward facing dog, too.
If you’ve ever been to an obesity-focused conference, you know that there is more to the daily schedule than the typical presentations and keynote speeches. Exercise breaks get conference goers on their feet in-between sessions. Instead of coffee and donuts, there is water, fresh fruit and even Greek yogurt on hand to keep people focused.
At an event where people lecture about the importance of good nutrition and physical activity, it’s an absolute must that those people also eat healthy and get active themselves.
“It’s really a no brainer,” says Peri Nearon, director of the Office of Nutrition and Fitness at the New Jersey Department of Health, who organizes the Shaping New Jersey conference and other events. “You cannot have a meeting and talk about health and serve foods that aren’t good for you.”
The Shaping New Jersey conference, held in May, featured a breakfast that included fresh fruit and 100 percent juices. For lunch, healthy sandwiches where served. And sometime between a presentation on obesity statistics and another on working group initiatives, yoga instructor Romy Toussaint led the attendees in a physical activity break.
Nearon tells The Inside Track that creating a healthy conference atmosphere is challenging. Catering healthy food often costs a little more than the unhealthy stuff, for example, which can cut into the budget. Plus, some caterers are so used to serving unhealthy dishes that they frequently have to create special meals to meet tougher nutrition requirements (although Nearon says catering competition is so fierce that most caterers are happy to do so).
Exercise-wise, Nearon advises instructors to remember that they can’t go too crazy with their routines, as attendees are usually in dressed in business attire, not a T-shirt and sweat pants.
But taking the healthy route is worth it, Nearon says, noting that she and other organizers always receive positive feedback about the nutritious food and the exercise breaks.
“I think people are thinking about it. I think our responsibility is to be a role model, the best we can,” she says. “You really can spread the word through what you do, as opposed to what you say.”
Other conferences have incorporated similar activities, of course. At the recent 6th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference in San Diego, attendees could go on evening walks, take a morning yoga class, run around the San Diego harbor or even take a chair exercise class. Fitness instructors regularly hit the stage after plenary sessions or keynote speeches to get people moving.
Just after White House assistant chef Sam Kass wrapped up a keynote speech, the hundreds of attendees began a brief workout, meaning that the celebrity chef was surrounded by folks doing punches and kicks as he took photos with fans. 
Healthy activities are part of the planning process for the upcoming 5th Annual Southern Obesity Summit in New Orleans, slated for October. Organizer Stephanie Ondrias tells The Inside Track that four health-themed field trips are planned for conference attendees, including a hike through Lafitte Corridor, a bike tour of New Orleans, a trip to a schoolyard garden and another to a micro-urban farm.
Since the conference is in the Big Easy, the food served will be southern, but chefs will put a healthy spin on it, Ondrias says. And like other conferences, organizers will schedule exercise breaks between plenary sessions. “We’ll do something, whether it be yoga or aerobics or whatever the current trend is,” Ondrias adds.
For conference organizers, just making sure their events don’t include junk food is just as important as scheduling in time for Zumba. Nearon recalls going to one health conference at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, only to be served cookies and ice cream and chicken covered in an unhealthy cream sauce. 
She also once visited a local charity to help plan a 5K race, where she discovered that race organizers had planned to hand out potato chips to runners at the finish line. “That’s just really a mixed message,” she notes, laughing.
Of course, not everyone will be happy with the food or exercise choices, Nearon says. At one Shaping New Jersey conference, she served yogurt only to have people complain that the yogurt wasn’t healthy enough. So this year, organizers paid 60 cents extra per person to serve Greek yogurt, she says.
“We’re trying to perfect it,” she says. “It’s really tough. It’s hard to serve large groups of people healthy food.”
But it’s important to try, Nearon adds. “I think that if you’re not going to walk the walk, people are going to dismiss you,” she says.