A lifelong runner with a degree in health services management and experience as a healthcare executive, Michelle Paterson, wife of New York Governor David Paterson, might be the perfect person to lead her state’s battle against childhood obesity. At home she’s improved her family’s eating habits. On the job she’s talked to scores of doctors about the growing number of young people developing Type 2 diabetes and having gastric bypass surgery. And as New York’s First Lady, she’s on the frontlines of the battle against the youth bulge.
“I want to empower children to take charge of their bodies and their lives,” said Paterson, who has a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in health services management from the Milano Graduate School in New York City. She’s currently the director of integrative wellness at Emblem Health. “We tend to think that more on a plate is better. I wasn’t sure that anyone was talking to them about not going to McDonald’s every day.”
The fitness initiative she created for Harlem children in 2006—putting pedometers into the hands of 3,000 middle school students who completed to see who could take the most steps—morphed into Healthy Steps to Albany. Last year 26,000 middle school students in upstate New York competed, taking a combined 1.5 billion steps. Registration is underway for this year’s event, which includes a statewide rollout on March 1 and seeks to attract 350,000 youth.
Healthy Steps purposely targets middle school students, Paterson said, because they’re entering that crucial period of puberty. “They’re gaining weight and are unsure about what’s going on in their bodies. Many can’t articulate what’s happening to them—the hormones, the anxiety and the depression. It happened to me in middle school.”
Paterson found a refuge in running. Three decades later, and she’s still passionate about exercise. Ditto for watching what her family eats. Out: fried foods, white flour, excessive sugar, carbohydrates and caffeine. In: whole grain products and portion sizes. One of her first moves as New York’s First Lady included eliminating soda pop from the executive mansion, causing a minor (but easily quashed) uproar.
“New York state spends $6 billion annually on obesity-related issues,” Paterson said, noting that the Healthy Steps to Albany web site allows students to convert exercise into steps and features a nutrition component encouraging them to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. “It took years to change attitudes about smoking. It will take just as long to change attitudes about healthy eating and lifestyles.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests the initiative is making headway. One student told her he now walks to school instead of taking the bus. Another student said her parents got pedometers and began buying more fruits and vegetables. A young girl told her that her mom lost weight after starting to exercise and eating healthier. Last year’s winning class created a dance. Another group of students penned a rap about living an active lifestyle.
Paterson said some underprivileged without gyms or sports teams use the program as their competitive outlet. She recalled a girl who visited the dairy farm and thought that potato chips came from potato chips and cheese came from the grocery store—not from potatoes and milk.
“I grew up spending most of my summers on a farm in West Point, Ga.,” said Paterson, who lives in Harlem and has two children, Ashley 21 and Alex, 15. “My mother bought locally and in season. Children don’t know about these things any more. At the mansion, we have a garden and we invite Albany schools to help with it and we educate students about vegetables. It doesn’t take a lot to steam up broccoli and you don’t need a lot of money to exercise.”
Similar to the collaborative approach she used as director of external affairs and corporate contributions for Health Plan of New York, Paterson works with schools, state agencies and civic organizations to tackle childhood obesity and stress-related ailments. As long as she has the platform of the governor’s office, she’s going to champion healthy lifestyles.
“Healthy habits may be common sense to me, but even though we talk about making the right choices, it’s not clicking yet that obesity is a serious problem,” said Patterson, who was born in Fairfield, Calif., and met David in 1982, marrying him 10 years later.” It costs more to eat healthy than not healthy. You can go to McDonalds and feed a family of five with what it costs to buy fruits and veggies for one person. It’s going to take all of us to battle this problem.”
To learn more about Healthy Steps to Albany, www.healthystepstoalbany.ny.gov.