Shannon Miller Shares Her Biggest Rewards, Challenges and Motivations
Health and Nutrition The former Olympian, cancer survivor and founder of Shannon Miller Foundation is doing more than curb childhood obesity rates.
What’s the inspiration behind your foundation and general advocacy of a balanced lifestyle?
Shannon Miller: My husband and I started the foundation in 2007. This was before we had children and before I had started my company. I had already been focused on promoting a healthy lifestyle for women, but hadn’t yet started my company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle. We began talking about what areas we were really passionate about. Both of us loved family, children and we both grew up very active.
The epidemic of childhood obesity was just becoming a bigger issue and we felt we could help create some awareness. As we moved forward over the years, we have become move focused on the activity portion of helping children to be healthy. It’s not about weight or even the word “obese.” It’s about learning healthy lifestyle habits and having the opportunity to be active each and every day. As we watched the decline in physical education across the country, we really felt that was an area where we could make a difference. We talk about leadership and good nutrition in our programs but the primary purpose is to get kids moving and having lots of fun doing it.
What can you say to parents struggling to instill healthy habits in their children?
As parents of a seven and also a three-year-old, I realize more than ever that parenthood is not about being perfect; it’s about making as many good decisions as you can and understanding that you just won’t get it right all the time. I feel like having that healthy lifestyle balance is the same way. We’re going to make mistakes. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it. We just get back on track as quickly as possible and keep going.
“Women are so often focused on everyone and everything around them that we can easily get distracted from taking care of our own health.”
I like to start with focusing on baby steps. If we bite off too much to begin with, we’re never going to make it last. Don’t come out of the gate running a marathon. Start with those first few steps. What are those small changes you can make that you can live with for the long-term? Start with those. Then work in other changes a little at a time. If you try and change everything at once it’s not likely to stick. We don’t want a fad; we want a lifestyle. And this is important because you ultimately want your whole family on board. You want it to be fun — not punishment.
I would also say that the early you start the better. Don’t put it off thinking it’ll get easier. If your children learn healthy habits early, you’ll have fewer battles later. Even toddlers can grasp concepts like serving sizes. And the more you stick with it each day, the easier it will become.
I like to involve my kids in some of the choices. I found out the hard way that I can’t just ask “What do you want for breakfast?” That’s very dangerous; there are just too many options. I realized it was better to give the two or three choices, any of which I was okay with. They like being part of the process. I can put something very simple together, like whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and ask them to decorate it. They can choose from sunflower seeds, raisins and all kinds of different fruit. They love to make shapes and often put together some of the most amazing creations. I also know they’ll eat it because they helped make it.
It’s important that children learn why eating healthy is important. For smaller children it might be as simple as: when you drink water, your body works better. If you have a teenager, understanding that fueling your body for success in their activities might be something that helps them understand the importance of choosing wisely. Ultimately, we want our children to make these healthy choices for themselves because, even at a young age, we just can’t be with them 24/7.
Lead by example. The most important thing you can do for your children is to practice what you preach. Children do not always do what we say, however, they often do what we do. If I’m sitting on the couch eating chips, that’s what they want to do. But if I’m snacking on grapes or doing yoga, they want to join in. We have to set a good example for them in the choices we make each day. That’s one of the reasons it’s easier to stick with a healthy lifestyle if the whole family is involved. Again, that doesn’t mean perfection or never having a few goodies.
I’m a big advocate of everything in moderation, especially as it relates to diet. My kids eat cookies and pizza but they aren’t every day. I try to give them as much healthy food as I can, knowing that there will be times when they will have not-so-healthy fare. There has to be a balance. I don’t want them to feel deprived. I want them to learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy and know that they can balance it out.
How do you suggest parents handle conversations around childhood and female wellness, body stigmas, among others?
I haven’t had to deal with that conversation with my daughter yet — or my son for that matter — because I think it’s also important for boys to understand as well. I’m hopeful that I am raising my kids to understand that their self-worth. Confidence and strength are not bound by the number on a scale or a certain body type. I want my kids to focus on amazing things their bodies can do.
With regard to unhealthy eating: start as early as possible. I try to focus on how foods fuel us. Sugar may give a burst of energy but it doesn’t last. Protein keeps us going longer. I probably wouldn’t talk too in-depth about teen years and body image other than to generally say that I hope young women will look at what their bodies can do versus what they cannot do. People can be cruel.
One lesson I learned along the way was that you can’t let others steal your joy. Focus on what is positive and stop listening to those that have anything negative to say. It’s a hard lesson. It’s not easy. But if we think about being healthy versus being a certain size, I think that’s a really good thing.
I love the “Sports Illustrated” inset of the work by Howard Shatz that shows the incredible differences in body types of top female athletes. We are all different shapes and sizes and yet we have all excelled to become the best in our fields.
“Being a mom motivates me the most. I loved gymnastics and I have used my cancer experience to really focus on what’s truly important.”
What has been the most rewarding part of becoming a motivational speaker?
My foundation is a dedicated to fighting childhood obesity. Primarily we focus on helping children gain access to physical activity through our in-school running clubs. We currently have a little over 8,000 children taking part in our program in the Jacksonville, FL area. Shannon Miller Lifestyle, my company, has a mission to help women make their health a priority through awareness, programs, partnerships, speaking, products and a content based website. We focus on everything from nutrition and fitness to the importance of rest and recuperation.
Women are so often focused on everyone and everything around them that we can easily get distracted from taking care of our own health. Bringing awareness to childhood obesity and the importance of keeping our kids active is something that I absolutely enjoy. It’s important and I hope that any voice I have can help.
I think one of the things I love about my work is that I get to do something I’m passionate about and will hopefully help people by reminding them the importance of making those small changes that can add up to really big and positive differences in their lives. I don’t want it to be overwhelming. Making healthy lifestyle habits can be fun and I want people to know that they can do it.
You’ve had an outstanding career as a gymnast. What stands out the most in your memory?
Of course, I loved the 1996 Olympics. This summer, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first women’s gymnastics team to win gold for the United States and it was amazing. But I often look back to a little known competition in Catania, Italy. It was just my second international competition as a junior and it was the first time I had ever won the all-around while representing the United States. It was the first time I got to stand on that podium and see the American flag being raised and hear the sounds of my national anthem. It was such an amazing and awe-inspiring moment that I went home to Oklahoma more passionate than ever about training to make my first Olympic team. It was at that moment that my Olympic dream truly began.
You have overcome countless obstacles in your life. What motivates you most?
Being a mom motivates me the most. I loved gymnastics and I have used my cancer experience to really focus on what’s truly important. However, no matter what I do or where I go, my focus is finding a way to be the best mom I can and raise children that are loving, healthy and happy. I want my children to see that I love my work and that helping others is a wonderful thing. I also attempt to make healthy lifestyle choices that they will see and internalize as they grow up and need to make their own decisions about health and wellness.