Last year, nutritionists and physical trainers posed a challenge to 26 South Florida children: Try a new vegetable each week, control portion sizes at mealtime and embrace exercising.
The children succeeded.
Following the positive outcomes of last year’s Team Fit program, an exercise and nutrition course for youths, organizers will repeat the eight-week program this year.
“There were some kids out there who hated exercising. But by the time we were done with this program, they were hooked on something,” said Meg McCarthy, director of the fitness center at the Alper JCC in Kendall. “We want a healthier association with activity.”
Team Fit, held at Alper, is supported through a United Way grant as well as through the donated time of Alper JCC trainers, Baptist Hospital nutritionists, Florida International University nutrition students, and a mental-health counselor who will help children work around the barriers to leading a healthy life.
Team Fit is open to a younger age group — children 8 to 12 years old.
“Usually you are going to find these weight programs for teenagers. But the problem starts before that,” said McCarthy.
Indeed, in the United States, the proportion of obese 6- to 11-year-olds grew from 7 to 18 percent between 1980 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A University of Miami study has found that high cholesterol levels and artery inflammation — due to excess weight — can begin as early as age 3. These factors, along with high blood pressure and high blood sugar, lead to the metabolic syndrome, which predisposes children to heart attacks and strokes once they reach adulthood.
To prevent such problems, Team Fit includes a bi-weekly two-hour exercise class that starts with a warm up on treadmills or stationary bicycles, continues with circuit training on an obstacle course, and finishes with outdoor play of a team sport such as basketball. On Saturdays, parents and children take turns attending a nutrition class.
At Team Fit, parents are equal partners in their child’s work toward a healthier lifestyle — whether in setting an example by exercising at the Alper JCC gym or by encouraging children to eat healthier.
“This doesn’t work if the whole family is not on board,” said McCarthy.
While the children lost an average of 3- to 5 pounds during last year’s eight-week course, weight loss is not Team Fit’s targeted goal, she added. Rather, success is measured by the children’s positive attitude toward attending classes and keeping a nutritional diet.
“Parents told us, ‘On Saturdays the kids are pulling us out of the house to go to class’,” said McCarthy. “That’s a sign that we are doing something right.”
Dana Cohen, clinical nutrition manager at Baptist Hospital, teaches the Saturday nutrition class. She said that last year, participants followed through with their promise to try a new vegetable each week.
“A lot of kids had never tried broccoli. They also really liked the cabbage,” said Cohen.
Each Saturday class, she presents a new topic for parents to study in-depth and for children to learn through hands-on activities.
When Cohen held the portion-size control class for children, she had each child serve as much pasta on their plate as they would eat. Then, the class measured how many servings were in each plate.
“They realized sometimes they could be eating three or four cups of pasta,” said Cohen, adding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s suggested serving for pasta is half a cup. “Pasta is OK if you have it in smaller portions.”
Other children’s class activities included making a vegetarian burrito, and cutting out food photographs from magazines and arranging them in plastic plates to demonstrate understanding of what goes into a nutritional meal. Nutritionists suggest filling half of the plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with protein-filled food and the rest with products rich in starch.
Through her nutrition class, Cohen tells parents to empower their child when it comes to healthy eating: allow the children to help out in the kitchen, prepare their own lunch and come along on grocery-store trips.
“I hope that they stop controlling the kid and allow the kid to make decisions,” Cohen said. “Yet, the parents should provide healthy choices.”