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Travelling lab makes healthy living fun for remote kids

Lab teaches remote kids healthy living
Photo: Lab teaches remote kids healthy living
A travelling health lab has found a fun way to make people interested in their long-term health, and is finding success in a remote top end community.

In a busy classroom on the Tiwi Islands, teacher's aide Stan blows into a breathalyser measuring carbon dioxide from smoke in the body, almost sending himself off the classroom scale. His students dissolve into laughter.

When asked, he sheepishly admits to smoking.

"You play footy? You'll run faster if you quit," says a researcher from the Heart Foundation.

Two year nine girls blow and giggle with relief to find themselves in the healthy range.

Across the room, kids bounce from station to station, trying out hand strength tests, scanning themselves with UV lights to see what germs remain after washing their hands, and checking their blood pressure, height and weight.
At one table, a young boy stares agog when he sees how many packets of sugar go into Coca-Cola, fruit juice and iced coffee.

This is HealthLAB, run by the Menzies School of Health Research, where community members of the remote islands 80km north of Darwin discover what will be the long-term impacts of the choices they make today.

The lab has been travelling around markets, public events and schools in Darwin and Menzies hopes it will become a permanent fixture spreading the word by visiting remote communities across the Northern Territory.

Almost half of indigenous adults smoke on a daily basis, and only five per cent report eating enough vegetables each day.

Dayna Tipundti, 13, said in Wurrumiyanga children as young as six have smoked.

"A lot of kids smoke around here, we see them walking on the street smoking; we try to tell them that it's not good but they think it's funny," she said.

In the wider Australian community, almost three quarters of adult men and more than half of women are overweight, and less than half of young people aged 12-24 meet the recommended physical activity guidelines.

"A lot of chronic disease has to do with how healthy our diet is," said Claire Georga, a dietician with Menzies.

"The sooner we can get kids interested in healthy foods, they're going to grow up craving those foods and it's going to be better for them in the long run to reduce their risk of chronic diseases."

Soft drinks are very popular in remote communities, but too much sugar is leading to decaying teeth, Type 2 diabetes and kidney disease.

She said the shock factor of the lab worked well in helping kids internalise healthy living.

Education is key, and Ms Georga said she hoped the kids would pass the message on.

"A lot of the time the kids attending school are the most literate of the family, so they can take our western message and put it into a language that their family and friends can understand and hopefully, by that, pass on the improvement in health," she said.


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