Melanie Richie and I couldn’t help but LOL the other day at Sheridan when one of her young charges asked to ride the elevator from the first to the third floor of the Northeast Minneapolis school.
“No, it’s FITNESS class,” she said, smiling as we and a half-dozen girls huffed our way up the stairs, exercising hearts, lungs and legs.
It’s hard not to admire the kids who sign on for FIT Force, an after-school program of Fremont Community Clinics aimed at preventing and decreasing childhood obesity. After all, they could be sitting in front of a TV or computer somewhere.
Instead, they’re getting healthier.
About 500 boys and girls have signed on since July 2008, learning to eat better and exercise more. And the proof’s in the pudding, or rather the fruit and the veggies.
That’s why FIT Force programs start at the scale, says Richie, Fremont’s community health programs coordinator. At the beginning and end of the 12-week program staff measure children’s height, weight, blood pressure and body mass index.
Stats collected for the first year of the program show 47 percent of participants improved blood pressure and or heart rate with progress toward a healthy body mass index (the ratio of height to weight). Also, 75 percent got off the couch more to rev up heart rates with physical activity.
Rising rates of obesity
That’s notable considering at least one-third of American children are overweight and 17 percent are very overweight and thus prime candidates for chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and sleep apnea.
Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports show high-end numbers of the very overweight, that is the obese, seem to have hit a plateau, but Richie says it’s no time for complacency. (In Minnesota the rate of obesity is 24 percent.)
The FIT Force program for children 9 to 18 is doing its bit: getting kids to recognize the big fat truth as they call it, that mega-helpings of ice cream, cheese and sugared cereals, to name a few offenders, pile on the calories and that staying a healthy weight is all about lifestyle changes.
Further, the program is focused on children living in North and Northeast Minneapolis, where poverty levels can be significant. At Sheridan, for instance, 85 percent of students qualify to receive lunch for free or at a reduced price.
“We all know that in lower-income areas there are so many barriers to getting more nutritious food, including availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, transportation and lack of resources to buy them,” Richie said.
The program also targets African American and Hispanic youth, good news considering the incidence of weight problems among those groups as reported recently in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Obesity rates among African-American and Hispanic adults range from 37 percent to 50 percent and their children weigh more than non-Hispanic whites, according to the study. (Look here for CDC definitions of overweight and obesity.)
Hip-hop dance classes
Two times a week at Sheridan Global Arts and Communications School, kids spend 30 minutes talking about nutrition with hands-on activities and visual aids followed by 30 minutes of physical activity. They scramble down the stairs to play basketball in the gym or do calisthenics or power-walk in the hallways. FIT Force classes are also held at North Community High School, Olson Middle School and Nellie Stone Johnson Community School.
Besides the free after-school programs for kids, Fremont Clinics offer evening options: hip-hop dance classes, family exercise and nutrition classes as well as dietary counseling. Count United Way and General Mills as funders. Affordable health care at Fremont clinics dates back to their beginnings 40 years ago when two small free clinics were staffed by volunteers working in community centers.
Following a snack of juice and whole-grain crackers recently, six girls 11 to 14 settled into a classroom to talk about the good things they do for their bodies: workout, eat vegetables, drink milk.
Then instructor Eboni Abner held up a series of cereal, pasta and sweet snack boxes, leading youngsters in discussion. Her message: look past glitzy, kid-friendly packaging to the nutrition or lack of it inside food packages.
And suddenly, 13-year-old Tamiea spoke up, spot-on. At her house, Tamiea said, the kids have started doing morning exercises with their mom. “My mom said we need to start being healthy,” the seventh-grader said.