Michael J. Coons

Michael CoonsAssistant Professor,
Family & Community Medicine

"Making healthy choices is often perceived as not being fun — people associate them with ‘missing out’ on things that they enjoy,” says Michael J. Coons. Coons is a health psychologist and an expert in technology-supported behavioural interventions for obesity. He has also been appointed to the Obesity Committee, Council for Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health, for the American Heart Association (2012–16).

“Technologies provide the opportunity to make healthy choices both fun and engaging. Leveraging approaches used to develop video games can help to increase engagement, help children to build a supportive social environment by connecting with others, and foster some healthy ‘competition’ either with oneself or others.”

Coons, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine, also serves as the co-lead of the primary care component of a diabetes prevention initiative in Markham. This community-based initiative — called Markham Diabetes Game Changing Initiative — makes information, as well as diabetes-specific care and treatment, more easily available to the local residents.

“The vast majority of decisions about diet and physical activity happen outside of an office or clinic,” explains Coons. “We need to provide people with tools to help them make healthier decisions, where the decisions are actually made. Technologies can provide a virtual connection between people and their care providers that can be leveraged for coaching or support. Habits, by definition, happen outside of our conscious awareness. Using technologies may also help us to uncover patterns or interactions between people, their behaviours, and their environments, which could help us to develop more effective programs to prevent or manage childhood obesity and related problems.”

Coons points out that childhood malnutrition and obesity are very complex issues. Inequity in access to healthy food options, where less healthy foods are much cheaper and more easily available than more nutritious options, is an important issue. Less active time in the classroom and home environments, as well as the inability of parents and caregivers to implement and model healthy choices are also contributing factors.

Solving these problems is not easy. “There is a lack of policies and initiatives by both government and private sector to improve access to healthy food options,” says Coons. “For example, there are few regulations limiting access to sugar sweetened beverages and high calorie foods in spaces that children frequent such as schools and recreation centres.”

“We also need to ensure open access to recreation spaces, increase subsidies for physical activity programming in the community, and provide stable and committed funding for school-based physical activity programs. We need to consider physical activity a priority across our institutions, rather than luxury activity, if and when we have the extra time and money to commit to it. Finally, we would benefit from more family-based programs to support the implementation and modeling of healthy lifestyles for our youth.”

Coons is excited to partner with his colleagues at the Centre to work towards these solutions. “Clearly, childhood obesity is a multifaceted problem, which requires a coordinated effort to address,” he says. “The network of partners through the Centre will help to break down our silos, bring key stakeholders to the table together, and enable us to develop and evaluate coordinated strategies to achieve our goals to reduce the incidence and prevalence of childhood obesity.”

When it comes to practical advice that families can follow to make a difference in their own and children’s lives, here is what Coons suggests: “Small changes made consistently, over time, lead to larger changes and greater health impacts. Consider what small changes you can make today that can help to achieve a healthier weight. Add an apple for a snack. Park your car in the furthest spot in the parking lot. Take the stairs, rather than the elevator. These changes are relatively simple, fit into your existing routines, and over time can lead to better health outcomes for everyone.”

At a glance:

Michael J. Coons, PhD, CBSM

Research Interests

  • Development and evaluation of behavioural interventions for chronic disease prevention and management
  • Evaluation of technologies to support multiple health beahviour changes
  • Surveillance of process indicators and outcome for diabetes and obesity in primary care
  • Knowledge synthesis (systematic reviews) of literature related to obesity

Appointments

  • Assistant Professor, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto
  • Director of Research in Family Medicine, Markham Stouffville Hospital
  • Scientist, Markham Diabetes Game Changing Initiative 
  • Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology, York University

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