Ka Wai Ola

Photo: Claire Kuʻuleilani Hughes

ʻŌlelo Noʻeau no. 258
Up! Together! Join Hands! A call to come togther to tackle a given task.

Mary Kawena Pukui wrote, “Rigorous concern for soundness of body is a primary consideration throughout physical life, especially before and during infancy…Physical breeding as a means of perpetuating the ‘ohana, was even more important than personal health,” in The Polynesian Family System of Ka‘u, Hawai‘i. This passage reflects the everyday concerns of our Hawaiian ancestors and are evidence of their thinking and practices.

“Rigorous concern” for body soundness is no longer of primary importance to Hawaiians today. Health data shows increasing rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes among Native Hawaiians over the decades. Obesity has increased from 27% to 50.1% in twenty years. It’s alarming that many Hawaiian children don’t know what a healthy daily diet is. Moreover, most children do not have role models to emulate or opportunities to experience being physically fit. Instead, unsound bodies with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and poor physical fitness are prevalent and visually evident.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NH/PI) health is highly concerning to families, communities and the government. A recent report on Native Hawaiian health says chronic illness and obesity rates have increased, compared to other ethnic populations in Hawai‘i. In 2014, NH/PIs in the U.S. were nearly twice as likely to have a diabetes diagnosis than Caucasians. By 2019, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department reported that NH/PIs were 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes compared to Caucasians. And the health of Native Hawaiian infants and children is also concerning. Major risk or causative factors for chronic illnesses like diabetes include obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, low income status and low rates of physical exercise.

Other ethnic populations in Hawai‘i also have increasing rates of obesity and poor physical fitness. However, Native Hawaiian health is especially concerning.

Two factors that cause weight gain are food and physical activity choices. Gains in bodyweight occur when more calories are eaten than are used in physical activity. Our bodies save all extra or surplus calories that we eat as fat – and body weight increases. Weight loss occurs when fewer calories are eaten than are used. Replacing high-calorie foods with lower-calorie choices can result in weight loss. When physical exercise burns calories, both stored and new calories are burned; and a lowering of fat stores results in weight loss.

Food sources and exercise habits in Hawaiian communities have changed over time. Hawaiians have moved away from a history of maintaining a constant state of warrior-readiness and fitness. There is no question why our Hawaiian ancestors were strong, sturdy and “capable of bearing great fatigue.” It was due to the constant physical demands of living. And it is not surprising that the Känaka Maoli were battle-ready whenever “the call” came.

Today, Hawaiians have become less physically fit and more overweight. And most are aware that their calorie intakes are too high. We know the situation is NOT hopeless. We know that small daily changes make a difference. An example: a friend gave up drinking daily soda and lost seven pounds in a month. Hawai‘i is blessed with the best tasting water in the nation. Chill it, drink it, and learn that it is ‘ono.

And accept the challenge of physical activity! A key strategy is starting small and building to greater exertion. A great exercise is a walk in the cool evening or early morning hours. Walk in your neighborhood first and build stamina. Then walk the beach or mountain trails, or power-walk and jog on level ground. This could be a wonderful family project – daily workouts are more fun with a group. Challenge yourself to do daily workouts!