As soon as she heard the word “go,” Ashley Jackson grabbed her orange dumbbells, lifted them above her head and then lowered them to her sides.
To the sound of the pulsating music, she continued with the dumbbells until she heard Rickey Dickenson say “switch.”
She put them down immediately and began jumping jacks.
Ashley, who is only 10, is part of a Kids’ Boot Camp at Memorial Hospital West, a program aimed at getting kids in shape at an early age.
For Ashley, the 45-minute high-impact class gives her something to do during the summer and helps her achieve her goal of being able to wear her clothes comfortably.
“I have some clothes I stretch out,” she said as she took a water break. “It’s tiring, but it’s fun.”
Memorial West’s class is one of several programs offered through hospitals to help children stay healthy through exercise and proper eating. While Memorial’s program is specifically geared toward keeping children active, both the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Miami Children’s Hospital offer comprehensive programs for children who are obese or at-risk of becoming overweight.
The idea is to encourage healthy eating and exercise as early as possible to prevent health problems later on. They say parents need to introduce fruits and vegetables and limit television and computer time so it becomes part of a child’s routine.
“It’s a serious problem and can only get worse,” said Dr. William Muinos, who heads the Weight Management Program at Miami Children’s Hospital. “It’s all about health.”’
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three children is obese. The number has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, the CDC reports.
Muinos sees about 30 children every Friday as part of the hospital’s weight management program. Muinos works to create individualized plans based on the age of the child and how high is the child’s Body Mass Index. Growing children are placed in a percentile based on their age and gender.
He said in extreme cases, he has worked with children who have had to lose more than 100 pounds. While he works to get the children to understand the importance of losing weight, he knows he also has to make sure the family is on-board.
“A child can not do it by themselves,” he said. “The parent has to make the commitment.”
He starts by encouraging vegetables and reducing starchy food from the a child’s diet. He also develops a “doable,” exercise plan that can be anything from walking to going to the gym.
“We have to make sure it’s something a child will stick with,” he said.
Muinos said most of the time getting a kid on track means changing behavior completely. He said today’s world of fast food, television and video games contributes to the “epidemic.”
“This is a societal issue,” he said.
For Jose Carlos Sanchez, the past two months have been a complete change in lifestyle. He was referred to Muinos by his pediatrician because the 14-year-old weighed nearly 250 pounds. He has already lost about 20 and is motivated to continue down the right path.
“I feel much better about myself,” said Jose Carlos, who lives in Hialeah and is going into the eighth grade. “I have a lot more energy.”
His mom Mayelin Govea said she is very happy that doctor was able to get her son’s weight under control.
“He didn’t like fruit or salad,” she said in Spanish. “He didn’t want to exercise.”
Now she takes him to the gym several times a week and he plays basketball with his friends.
“I see a big change in him,” she said.
Miami Children’s Hospital also has a 10-week program for overweight Latin teen girls called Healthy Chicas. The two-hour-long sessions include exercise and nutrition education and cooking instruction. The sessions have an adolescent medicine doctor and a nutritionist.
At the University of Miami’s Batchelor Children’s Research Institute, Dr. Tracie Miller screens children and then puts them on a plan that includes healthy eating and exercise. She starts by explaining how excess weight can affect each organ.
“It’s very important that understand what is going on in the inside,” she said. Children who are referred to the program, dubbed Crunchtime, are monitored closely during the nine-month program.
The children are given a bone density scan, put on a nutrition plan and are given a comprehensive fitness evaluation. The first three months are the strictest.
“The idea is to go hard and fast in the beginning,” said Miller. “Really the hardest part is just getting started.”
At the end of the day, fun is key, said Miller.
At the exercise class at Memorial West, many of the children didn’t even realize how hard they were working.
Dickenson, who teaches the class, said he tries to make it like a club with popular music and includes games so “they can be kids.” He creates a high-endurance and high-cardio class by using hula hoops, sliders, weights and balls.
“I make it a rock star-type atmosphere and the kids get into it,” he said. “By the end of the class they are all sweating.”
Viana Espinal, 7, said when she is done she “feels good,” about herself.
“I worked hard,” she said, her face red from the workout. She likes the music and the games.
Her grandmother, Ana Espinal, who uses the gym every day, said while her granddaughter is visiting her for the summer from New York, she can’t have her sitting around all day.
“It’s not good for her,” she said. “She needs to get some energy out.”
For Linnea Martinez, the class is a a great outlet for her three sons to get used to physical activity. Martinez said she is a former ballerina and often goes to the gym.
“I want them to be strong and confident,” she said of her her three boys, who are 7, 9 and 10. “And they are boys, they need to run off some of that energy.”