As one of Canada’s most-decorated hockey players, Hayley Wickenheiser knows the importance of healthy living. Training hard and eating well helped her win 4 gold medals and 1 silver medal on the Olympic stage as a member of Canada’s national women’s hockey team.

On a personal level, she’s also seen how healthy habits can transform a family. When Wickenheiser was a child, her father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. “You kind of get woken up when someone close to you [has diabetes] or needs a medical intervention,” she says.

Her mother helped her father radically change his diet after his diagnosis. Over time, her dad was able to reverse the symptoms of diabetes (such as extreme fatigue and weight change) by eating nutritious foods and exercising. But not every Canadian has the knowledge and support to tackle a diabetes diagnosis like Wickenheiser’s father did.

How many Canadians have diabetes?

Diabetes affects about 3.34 million Canadians, according to Diabetes Canada, and that figure is projected to grow. More than 1 in 3 Canadians could be living with diabetes by the end of this decade if steps aren’t taken to combat the disease.

A growing number of children are now living with diabetes – not just type 1, formerly called juvenile diabetes because it tended to strike children and teenagers, but also type 2, once known as adult-onset diabetes. The incidence of type 2 among children is increasing along with the rising tide of childhood obesity and inactivity. But unlike type 1, type 2 diabetes can be prevented through lifestyle changes.

On Oct. 12, 2017, Sun Life Financial announced a $2 million commitment to Canada’s Children’s Hospital Foundations, a network of 13 Canadian pediatric hospitals, through the new Sun Life Financial Child and Youth Type 2 Diabetes Prevention Initiative. This program will create educational resources for healthcare professionals and youth affected by diabetes.

A lot of money is spent on treating people living with diabetes, but not a lot is invested in preventing the disease, according to Wickenheiser. “There is a lot of emphasis on treating diabetes, but one of the best ways to fight diabetes is through prevention and education,” she says. “We have to have companies like Sun Life step up and say, ‘This matters enough that we are going to put money behind it.’”

Wickenheiser has been a lifelong advocate of healthy living, and now she’s furthering the cause by teaming up with Sun Life to fight diabetes. Wickenheiser recently hung up her skates after 23 years. Her new arena is the classroom, where she is pursuing a degree in medicine in Calgary. Outside of the classroom, she’s promoting health education. Watch Wickenheiser share her insights on health and hockey below.

How to lower your children’s risk of diabetes

There are simple but powerful ways families can lower their risk of type 2 diabetes, says Wickenheiser: “At the family level, just how you eat as a family can dramatically affect your chance of getting this disease. It’s probably the number-one thing.”

Wickenheiser is also an outspoken advocate for getting active. She acknowledges that not every child is a hockey prodigy and says the key is to encourage your children to try different activities that get them active, whether it's hiking, skating, dancing or team sports.

“It’s about finding something that your kid enjoys,” says Wickenheiser. “Ironically, my kid hates hockey, he is not a sports kid at all. However, he found the Cadets . . . a program that gets him active and through the program he found a passion for swimming and boxing.”

Besides finding an active pastime that your child enjoys, take the time to get active regularly as a family. Family activities can be simple and cheap – like going for a bike ride or a walk together, or dancing to favourite tunes. “If you make a decision as a family that you move together, you work out together, then maybe your kids will be more inclined to keep active throughout their lifetimes,” says Wickenheiser.

How high is your risk of diabetes?

Take the CANRISK test to estimate your chance of developing type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes (a condition where blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not yet at the level of diabetes). Knowing your risk level can help guide your diet choices, and inform your conversations with your doctor.

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