A chat with Dr. Sommer, the 219th Founder’s Day speaker

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By Gabriella Levine

At Union’s 219th Founder’s Day on Feb. 27, Dr. Alfred Sommer addressed the college community, providing an inside look at public health. Sommer is a global leader in the field and spearheaded research on vitamin A deficiencies in children in developing countries. His research has saved millions of lives and produced one of the most cost-effective health initiatives in the world. On Feb. 26, the Concordiensis sat down with Dr. Sommer for the following interview:

Concordy: How did your Union education shape your future involvement in the field of health?

Dr. Sommer: You really ought to start with asking about my relationship to the Concordy!

Concordy: What was your relationship to the Concordy?

Dr. Sommer: I was the Editor-in-Chief! Ah, gotcha! I was editor from 1961-1963. But back to your question. Faculty are the ones who influence you a great deal, as do your fellow students, and 92 percent of the time, the faculty were extraordinarily supportive and encouraging. I’m someone who likes to think outside the box … that can be challenging to faculty. But here, they almost always said, ‘That’s an interesting observation, why don’t you follow that up? Why don’t you demonstrate it?’ That was clearly a very important thing.

Concordy: What kind of responsibility do you think an institution like Union has to keep its students healthy and to encourage wellness?

Dr. Sommer: The college is a small school, which, in some ways, makes it more influential, whereas in some large schools you’re just a disembodied number, for the most part. So it’s like a family, an extended fam

ily, and families have responsibilities for one another. What you haven’t learned before, this is your last chance to learn it. Once you leave here, you’re out in the real world and no one is worrying about you.

I think it’s nice that the college takes wellness on as a responsibility to help you set patterns for healthy living. If it doesn’t get said here, then this is the last shot you really get, and then you’re out in the wild word. Here, we are all one big extended family, and we get the last opportunity to influence the way you are going to live your lives — not just physically, but mentally and ethically. There’s a whole bunch of things that this college brings to the table that can influence the way you live your life.

Concordy: Here at Union, especially this year, the college has been promoting a theme of health and wellness. Do you think that’s important on college campuses?

Dr. Sommer: I do think so, yes. If you’re going to instill a healthy lifestyle, you should start in pre-Kindergarten, but to me, what we have to overcome is the marketing of industry. The marketing of industry is to drink more sweetened beverages, like water with a color and sugar in it. That, of course, leads to the obesity epidemic. Do you still have gym?

Concordy: Nope. Not required, at least; we have yoga classes and whatnot.

Dr. Sommer: Well we did! We used to have to run every day! Every day you had to run. That’s the last time I was physically fit at all … when I was an undergraduate. Anyway, you’ve got to eat right and not too much. The problem is that we eat too much, and we eat too much of the wrong things. So, thinking about wellness is important.

However, here’s one negative example of thinking of wellness … it’s a joke, but a former colleague of mine in medical school, he wrote a book about, you know, ten steps to never dying. He would run 25 miles a day and not eat more than 10 percent of fat on average. Very hard to do. Almost no body fat whatsoever. In actual fact, now this is a bit of tongue in cheek, but it’s actually epidemiologically true, that if you run you will roughly add the amount of years to life that you spent running. So if, in your lifetime, you add up all the days you’ve been running and that’s three years, you’ll probably live three years longer, on average.

If you love running, this is a good deal … if you’re like me and you hate running, it’s really a bad deal, because you’re wasting three good, young years for an extra three years at the geriatric margin.

If you have one piece of cheesecake, or even really healthy carrot cake, that will have 1,700 calories in it, which is a day’s caloric requirement. Do you know how far you have to run to burn off that one piece of cake? 17 miles. That’s a lot of running for one damn piece of cake.

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