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All in the Family: Ending Obesity In Children Begins At Home

April 6, 2015 | Community News and Media, Media Coverage

Previously published in the Daily
Melissa Pileiro

We’ve heard for years that America’s waistband is tightening.

Our lifestyle explains why: This is the age of desk jobs, frozen food and on demand sitcoms. We want for nothing and barely need to lift a finger to fulfill our basic needs.

Sure, convenience is wonderful. But for too many people, it’s led to a poor diet, very little physical activity and weight gain.

In New Jersey, 26 percent of us are obese. That’s up from 20 percent a decade ago, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
And our children are more interested in Facebook and video games than recess outside. They, too, are suffering.

The New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids reports that a staggering 40 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds in the Garden State are obese.

In a 2010 survey, they wrote specifically of Vineland’s youth: “The majority of children do not meet the guidelines for being physically active for 60 minutes each day. In addition, a large proportion spend more than two hours watching television, using the computer and playing video games, and this is more prevalent among boys and older children.”

It’s an epidemic.

But taking proactive steps today can slow or even reverse the trend for future generations.

Changing perspectives

Like any other health problem, many people are reluctant to accept that something is wrong with them. But understanding and embracing the truth is an essential step to making better choices.

Lisa Scheetz, chief operating officer at the Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA in Vineland, has experienced the struggle for acceptance firsthand. The Y offers a variety of programs geared toward health promotion for children and families.

“I did a focus group with some moms in Vineland, and I kept using the word ‘obesity.’ But they associated obesity with what they see on weight loss TV shows and they think, ‘That’s not me. That’s not my child,’ ” Scheetz recalled. “If you want people to tune out, talk about obesity. But if you want a message that works, you need to focus on healthy living and making the healthy choice the easy choice.”

The curriculum for these programs focuses less on the numbers on the scale and more on learning to enjoy exercise and healthy food.

One of their main initiatives, Healthy U, combines playtime with nutritional education and more. It began in 2008 and since has spread throughout New Jersey. Local elementary schools have partnered with the Y to offer Healthy U after school.

They also offer Superhero in Training classes, which get young participants to turn off the TV, put down their phones and get moving.

“It’s a way for us to teach kids healthier ways to play,” Scheetz said.

Dr. Jazmine Harris said that her pediatric practice confronts weight-related health issues almost daily.

“I’d say at least two-thirds of my patients are overweight,” said Harris, interim chief medical officer at CompleteCare Health Network in Bridgeton. “You have to be careful because it’s easy to offend people. I remind (parents) that I’m not asking for them to put their child on a diet and I don’t expect them to look like a stick—we don’t have unrealistic expectations. Sometimes people think they need to look like someone on TV. But we’re just trying to make healthy living a priority.”

The National Institute of Health defines obesity by a person’s body mass index, or BMI. Your BMI is calculated using an equation that includes your height and weight.

The institute offers BMI ranges from underweight to obese, but its use has become more controversial in recent times.

Harris explained that the BMI fails to calculate how fat and muscle factor into your weight, which can lead to misleading results. For example, a “big boned” or very muscular athlete could have a BMI that falls into the obese category without any true weight problems.

She said that focusing less on the numbers and more on a patient’s overall health can lead to more permanent changes and curtail discouragement.

Changing habits

All of these programs are innovative ways of engaging children in healthier living. But Scheetz is quick to note that the whole family needs to get involved if they want to see lasting results.

“Kids watch their parents as examples of the right way to behave, and if parents are taking the time to exercise and eat right, kids will too,” Scheetz said. “But the world is so fast-paced. It can be easy to just drive through a fast food establishment, but that doesn’t end well.”

At Cumberland County College in Vineland, the S.T.E.P.S. program works to support struggling children and their families on the path to good health. Its full name describes its mission — Success Through Education, Physical Fitness and Sharing Information.

The program is free for children between the ages of 8 and 12 who are at least in the 85th percentile for weight. For seven weeks, participants and their families meet to pick up hands-on wellness tips directly from local experts.

Each session touches on nutrition, exercise and application of healthy life skills, said Rosie London, program manager for the Garden Area Health Education Center in Vineland.

“We have staff members that come out — a nutritionist, a physical education expert, a social worker — and for an hour-and-a-half each week we hit on each one of those three main components,” London said.

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