The No. 1 health concern among parents today isn’t drugs or smoking. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), it’s childhood obesity, an epidemic that has more than tripled over the past 40 years.
Childhood obesity causes healthcare issues in children that one typically finds in adults, including joint pain, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels.
But it can also carry psychological effects. According to the AHA obese children “are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image, and depression.”
To address this issue, the Whatcom Family YMCA has developed Actively Changing Together (ACT!), a 12-week program in partnership with the Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Y of Greater Seattle. ACT! provides kids and their families with realistic solutions to implement nutritious eating with regular physical activity into their daily lives.
26.2 percent of children in Washington state are considered obese, according to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which ranks sixth best in the nation.
“Obesity affects quality of life, and it’s expensive,” ACT! Coordinator Mary EC Latta says. “Once it gets going, it really snowballs.”
ACT!, which runs twice a year, meets weekly for 90-minute sessions. Children 8-14 who have a body mass index BMI greater than the 85th percentile may participate and need to be referred by their doctor, school nurse or any other licensed healthcare professional. Participating children must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian but often have other family members (siblings, aunts, uncles, etc.) attend as well.
The weekly classes are broken up into three segments. The first half hour engages the kids and their families in joint activities. The ACT! facilitators begin the class with games that are both competitive and fun to get the group moving around. The games are designed to be easily recreated at home – they don’t cost anything and there is no special equipment required.
“We try not to say the word ‘exercise,’ because it carries a negative connotation,” Latta says.
Obesity affects quality of life, and it’s expensive. Once it gets going, it really snowballs.
ACT! Coordinator Mary EC Latta
According to Laura Frambach, RD, a dietitian with the Whatcom Family YMCA and parent facilitator for ACT!, this part of the program is particularly fun for the kids, because their parents are alongside them and it gives them a chance to play together.
But the kids aren’t the only ones having a good time.
“Parents come with all their day’s burdens. To come and play, it changes everyone’s mood,” Frambach says.
For the second half hour, the kids continue with their games, while the parents meet with the parent facilitator.
“This gives the parents the opportunity to be in a group with other parents going through similar situations,” Frambach says.
The group discusses what it means to be a role model and explore potential barriers to achieving their health goals. Frambach also offers parents tips for incorporating activity and movement into their everyday lives.
This is all about health. We don’t even talk about weight loss in the program.
ACT! Coordinator Mary EC Latta
As Frambach helps the parents work through those topics, she reminds them to focus on “praising the effort of their kids instead of the outcomes.”
The last half hour focuses on nutrition topics. Frambach prompts kids to consider what “normal” eating is and rate their hunger on a scale. The instructors also offer the kids ways to cope with feelings like sadness, anxiety and anger that don’t involve eating.
During this segment, Frambach prepares a nutritious meal for the entire group. The components of the meal are set up like an assembly line, empowering the kids to choose their own ingredients and try foods they might not have tasted before.
ACT! is not a weight loss program. As Latta explains, sustainable weight loss does not happen in 12 weeks. Rather, ACT! focuses on stopping the weight gain; if they are successful in doing that, Latta says, the children will continue to grow and the weight will naturally come off.
“This is all about health. We don’t even talk about weight loss in the program,” she adds.
The current classes are held at the Sunnyland Elementary School, but in time, Latta plans to double the program in size and host classes at multiple locations throughout Bellingham.
To date, none of the participants have had to pay for the program out of pocket. The classes have been funded in part by money donated by the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Foundation and St. Joseph’s Hospital. The YMCA also has a scholarship fund from which it can pull if needed.
Parent involvement is crucial to the success of the program. If the parents see their kids more active they are more likely to become more active as well.
“It’s not just changing the child,” Latta says, “it’s changing the whole family.”
Ideas for parents to get their kids moving
▪ Suggest activities that both you and your kids can do together
▪ Park farther away and enjoy the walk to your destination
▪ Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible
▪ Try walking to the store instead of driving
▪ Limit screen time for kids
Next session: Sept. 26 through Dec. 12
More information: Contact Whatcom Family YMCA (360-733-8630) or speak to your pediatrician