Get-fit program fights diabetes

“They think twice before they want to buy pop or chips”


A new program that combines exercise and information is helping some residents of Puvirnituq become more fit, eat better and, it’s hoped, avoid diabetes.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the body can’t process the sugars in food properly. Depending on its severity, diabetes can lead to blindness, heart disease and sometimes even death.

Since January, a group of about 30 Puvirnitummiut from 18 to 62 who either have diabetes or are at risk of diabetes have been getting together twice a week for physical training and instruction on how to choose and cook healthy foods.

That’s because keeping fit and eating a healthy diet are two effective ways of preventing diabetes.

The Puvirnituq pilot project is the inspiration of Aline Roy, public health nurse at the Inuulitsivik Health Centre for the Hudson Bay coast, who received $50,000 for the “Challenge Diabetes-Stay Healthy” project.

“In 2003, we found 47 diabetics on the Hudson Bay for a population of 6,000,” Roy said.

The project’s participants have diabetes or conditions associated with diabetes, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.

Roy located a space in the community’s new co-op mall, outfitted it as a training centre with treadmills, exercise bikes, mats and other equipment, and then designed a 12-week program that includes sessions on topics such as “Your relationship with food,” “Stress,” “The effects of smoking on health” and even “How to read labels.”

“The regular person doesn’t know how to do that,” said Carole Beaulne, a nurse and long-time resident of Puvirnituq, who is coordinating the program. “We explain what to look at when they look at a box, and what they need, what they don’t need. They may choose potato chips. It’s the old principle – if it’s on the shelf, it’s because it’s good. ‘They wouldn’t sell something that isn’t good.’ People think like that.”

Beaulne said there’s a lot of emphasis on the superior qualities of country food.

“A nutrition module also deals with how to deal with the food we buy and what we need to do about pocket money for kids because they go right to the corner store,” Beaulne said.

Beaulne tells participants to leave the soup can at the store, and make homemade soup with recipes. This week the group was to make custard and a caribou stew.

“What we say is it’s OK to have french fries, but every day, that’s a problem,” Beaulne said. “We all like fatty stuff, once in a while it’s fine … the people who have problems are the ones who eat it all the time.”

The course material is given by Beaulne, who is fluent in English, Inuttitut and French, although visiting specialists often come in as well to speak to the group.

Evening sessions involve 45 minutes of talk, followed by exercises.

“I’m exactly like the rest of the gang, I’m getting in shape,” Beaulne said.

Despite the load of exercise and new information, participants enjoy the sessions.

“I was scared a bit to get them bored with my talking, but it’s the opposite. We go over our time and we don’t have time to do our exercise! When you don’t know something you’re not interested in doing anything about it. That’s like me as a nurse – if I don’t know how to make a cast, I don’t like to do it, but when I learn how to do it and practice, it’s OK, I love it,” Beaulne said.

“What we hear about the course is that it’s good for the mind and body. They feel less tired. The ones who follow it regularly, they’re less tired. For sure, anyway, they think twice before they want to buy pop or chips.”

This weekend, in Ottawa, representatives from the four Inuit regions, Inuit organizations and Health Canada will be meeting to discuss diabetes and how to prevent it from becoming a major health problem in Inuit communities.

Diabetes is increasing in Inuit communities. According to the overall national estimates of the 1991 aboriginal peoples survey, Inuit had a lower rate of diabetes, only 1.9 per cent, compared with the Canadian population.

However, the First Nations and Inuit Regional Health Survey released in 2003 shows diabetes rates as high as four per cent among Inuit in Labrador, higher than estimates for the overall Canadian population.

The overall diabetes rate for Inuit 15 and up is 2.3 per cent.

But some studies have concluded the actual rate of diabetes may be two or three times the rate of known diagnosed cases.

An eight-year study of diabetes among Alaskan natives found the greatest increase occurring among the Inupiat.

Diabetes is also on the rise in Greenland.

In the remote settlements of Uummannaq, 14.5 per cent of the population has diabetes, while in Nuuk, the capital, eight per cent have been diagnosed with this chronic disease.

The most potent risk factors driving the diabetes epidemic, in addition to a genetic predisposition, are alcohol consumption, age, obesity, physical inactivity and hypertension.

“Everything is different,” Beaulne said. “I’ve been here for 27 years. It’s very easy to get fat when you don’t have to work as hard as before. It’s very easy to gain weight slowly over the years. You don’t have to fetch your water every day, you don’t have to empty the honey bucket like we did before twice a day, you don’t have to walk anymore, you have trucks, cars, skidoos, ATVs.”

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