This article is part of our special report Nutrition and Child Survival.
Becoming disciplined to exercise and eat well was a learning curve for tennis champion Justine Henin, but she is helping to fight obesity by promoting healthy living and eating amongst young people, drawing on her personal experience and through her foundations.
Justine Henin, is former World No. 1 tennis player having won seven Grand Slam singles titles, and was the women’s singles gold medalist at the 2004 summer Olympic Games in Athens. She spoke with EURACTIV’s Jeremy Fleming at the conference “Eat Well, Drink Well, Move… a small step for you a big step for Europe”, held in Brussels last week.
What motivated you to be involved in the ICCR conference and in what ways do you relate to the problem of obesity in Europe?
I wanted to share my little experience as a former top athlete in tennis. It was my passion and job, and I learned a lot of things during my career, because eating well was not something I was really open to as a young kid. When I was young I was eating a lot of fast food and I did not have good habits and with my career I learned to pay attention to everything. Physical activity at an extreme level is not necessarily good, and now my body is a little bit tired. But I kept a lot of good things with me from my career, eating and drinking well, and I continue doing sports. Also I am a young mum I have a little girl of six months and I am really concerned that things in Belgium are getting more difficult [I relation to eating and drinking well] and I am concerned about this issue.
I understand that you are already involved in several projects that touch upon obesity. Could you tell us what kind of projects you are working on?
Yes I have a foundation which is called “Justine for kids” that was born because I lost my Mum at a very young age; I was twelve and she had colon cancer. I do not know if she was not eating well enough or not, but still I wanted to do something for kids, and we are working in hospitals with children who have a range of sicknesses, and with problem teenagers. I discuss this a lot with them and physical activity and I really believe that at any level if people move they feel better.
I also have an academy of young tennis players from 12- to 18-year olds. I tell them: “You do not have to come here to become a champion, but for personal development.” And we try to work on eating well and how to live together to reach a goal and discipline and mentality and that is the most important thing that I learned I can teach. Eating well and doing sports can be fun and we try to challenge them.
The problem of obesity is now everywhere. I can talk to my entourage and friends and family and they are all talking about wanting to lose some kilos and to go back to sports, so I am sure it’s something that people are thinking about every day.
According to the WHO, 19.1% of Belgians are obese, and even 51.5% of Belgians are overweight. You have recently become a mother yourself. Raising your daughter, what will you do to make sure she enjoys a healthy childhood, and will not become a part of these statistics?
I hope I will do a good job. I do not have lessons to give because it is very recent, but I hope I will be able to teach her good things, she just started a few days ago eating vegetables. Maybe now I do not play tennis I will have time and it is not easy for all parents. I feel lucky that I will have time to spend with my daughter, to cook with her and to try to give her the chance to do some sports. Maybe she will do something else, but even if so it is important just being active. It is not easy for parents, we are living in a stressful world. But I believe much comes down to choices. I have some friends who only give water to their kids and some who give them sodas, but I think we can make a choice and even if it’s not easy we can choose.
You have some experience in dealing with policy makers through your current projects. Based on this experience, what advice would you give the MEPs, the European Commissioner and the Presidency of the Council of the EU?
For me I can only talk about my experience but I would advise them to listen to the experts. In my career I had many specialists helping and often went into many details and it always worked best when the message was simple. In the past few years we have heard so many messages. But we all know how to stay healthy, to eat well and move a little bit. In general we know what we have to do and I am sure everyone can take a small step not only for ourselves but also for the next generation.
- Eurostat: Overweight and obesity - BMI statistics
- DG Sanco: Strategy on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues
- Journal of Health Economics: Maternal Employment and Childhood Obesity – A European Perspective
- My Healthy Waist: Website