Health & Fitness

Hospitals, parks, community centers fight childhood obesity

Kimberly Arzu, 17, completed the Healthy Chicas wellness program with her mom, at Miami Children's Hospital. During the 10-week program, moms and their teenage daughters learn about different type of physical activity and healthy eating.
Kimberly Arzu, 17, completed the Healthy Chicas wellness program with her mom, at Miami Children's Hospital. During the 10-week program, moms and their teenage daughters learn about different type of physical activity and healthy eating. Miami Children’s Hospital

Doctors say it isn’t rare anymore to diagnose a 4-year-old patient as obese.

“It is a huge issue these days,” said Dr. Patricia Feito, a Baptist Health primary care physician. “It is important to help parents determine if their child is at risk.”

The increased use of computers, tablets and other screens for homework and leisure time have contributed to a sedentary lifestyle for children. As such, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Parents have a lot to do with it,” said Feito, adding parents need to set a good example during meal times, limit the time spent on screens and ensure their children are active through sports or activities such as dance.

Across South Florida, there are a wide array of kids’ fitness programs to get your child on track for a healthier life:

The Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in Kendall offers an eight-week fitness program called Team Fit in partnership with United Way and Baptist Health Systems. The program focuses on helping children ages 8 to 12 who are screened as overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

Kids are divided into groups with a trainer to do age-appropriate exercises and games for an hour twice a week and for two hours on Saturdays. At least one parent must be at the session, and the center encourages families to participate and get fit together.

“Being part of an organized program improves their motor skills, social skills and promotes weight loss,” said Feito, adding that kids should be involved in sports or activities outside of their school’s physical education. “It all starts with play.”

Alper JCC also offers one-on-one personal training session for teens ages 13 to 15 to learn about personal fitness goals and gym etiquette.

Miami Children's Hospital offers a 10-week wellness program called Healthy Chicas, geared toward mothers and daughters to exercise and get nutritional counseling together.

Dr. Maria Demma Cabral, a fellow in adolescent medicine at Miami Children’s, helps identify patients who qualify for the program and oversees their progress.

Cabral tracks the patient’s Body Mass Index, a number calculated from a person’s weight and height, to determine when a patient is underweight, healthy weight or overweight. Patients who need to get their body weight under control, have high cholesterol or blood pressure are ideal candidates for the program.

“We follow up with them up to six months after [finishing the program],” Cabral said. “We see if they were able to [keep off the weight].”

Each week, kids and parents enrolled in the program spend an hour doing different types of physical activity, including salsa, belly dancing and yoga — anything to keep the heart rate up and boost metabolism.

Registered dietician Jennifer Caceres teaches participants about nutrition, hosts cooking demos and takes them on a field trip to the grocery store to learn about healthy, inexpensive alternatives to some foods. For example, buying pre-cut fruits is more expensive than buying the fruit whole and slicing it at home.

“You don’t need to buy expensive foods to be healthy or get a gym membership to be physically active,” Caceres said.

Kimberly Arzu, 17, completed the program with her mom, Ruth, in September. She said she enjoyed the trip to the grocery store, as it made her more conscious about the food she buys.

“I used to always get Frosted Flakes, but now I’ll opt for plain Cheerios,” Kimberly said.

The Healthy Chicas program had its pilot run in 2012 and its fourth group graduated in September. Cabral said they might have another 10-week run with a new group before June.


Ashley Ramos, 17, participated with her mom over the summer.

“I lost about seven pounds in the program, about five pounds since then,” said Ashley. “I want to be pretty for prom.”

Her mom, Olimpia Ramos, is thrilled with the physical and emotional progress she sees in her daughter.

“She has good confidence,” Ramos said. “She was able to gain something I didn’t know she was missing.”

The Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces offers an after-school program called Fit2Play at 41 parks in the county. The program serves as a childhood obesity prevention program, and anyone is eligible to apply.

The parks department collaborates with the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami Health System; doctors collect data from kids and track the health benefits of the program.

Dr. Sarah Messiah from UHealth says she measures each child’s BMI and blood pressure throughout the school year. In five years of conducting the study, Messiah has tracked how overweight and obese children are losing weight and have improved their blood pressure numbers.

Like other after-school programs, Fit2Play offers homework time and snack time, but the curriculum is based on staying active most of the time.

“We play non-elimination games,” said Caleb Coppock, health and wellness specialist for the parks department. “The goal is to stay active for as long as possible.”

Kids are exposed to different games and sports — capture the flag, kickball, flag football, soccer, tennis, golf. The program is available for kids ages 6 and up and it costs $25 to $35 a week, although the county offers fee reductions depending on the family income. There are about 1,400 kids enrolled in the program this year.

Katiana Rodriguez, 10, and her brother Alexander, 9, joined the Fit2Play program at the North Trail Park in northwest Miami-Dade last year.

“We learn about exercise and stuff,” said Alexander, still red-faced from playing soccer outdoors. “I love it.”


▪ Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, 11155 SW 112th Ave., offers the Team Fit program for kids, ages 8 to 12, screened as overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. The Intro to Fitness program is for teens ages 13 to 15. For information, contact Meg McCarthy at 305.271.9000 or e-mail

▪ The Fit2Play program is in session until June 4, Monday to Friday, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at 41 Miami-Dade park locations. For information, visit the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces website.