Healthy Weight Initiative Thrives By Focusing on Healthy Lifestyles, Not Weight

Posted March 22, 2016 by Cindy Hutter

Girl Getting Certificate
Children receive a certificate
for participating in the initiative.

Through a Healthy Weight Initiative at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, well over 200 kids have learned about monitoring sleep routines, fruit and veggie intake, screen time, physical activity and sweetened beverages. It’s a focus on healthier lifestyles and better choices, not weight loss, which is helping kids and families to see results.

“We have several kids who lowered their body mass index and are no longer having problems with asthma,” says Joyce Dupont, director of the Wellness Program in New Bedford, MA.

Any child ages 2-18 who sees a pediatrician at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center and has a body mass index (BMI) over the 85th percentile gets referred to the Healthy Weight Initiative. There, children meet with a team, which includes the assistant program coordinator, nurse, dietician and community health worker, and set a goal (e.g., exercise 10 minutes a day) to work on in between the next visit. There are also things like cooking demonstrations to help families break the habit of always buying the same foods and cooking them the same way.

“The cooking demonstrations have been a huge success,” says Dupont. “Families have heard about the program for years, so it doesn’t grab their attention like it did a few years ago. We keep evolving and changing the curriculum of the program—getting more exercise involved, cooking classes—so people can’t say, ‘been there did that.’ We want to make it more fun to get more interaction.”

New Bedford is one of two cities that participated in a NICHQ-led learning collaborative—Mass in Motion Kids Learning Collaborative—to reduce childhood obesity in two communities in Massachusetts by focusing on making changes in primary care, child care, schools and after-school programs, as well as creating policy change and building awareness through a community-wide campaign.

Boy Eating An AppleSome of the common concerns that Health Center workers Rebecca Levasseur and Ana Loaiza hear from participants is limited time and restrictions on physical activities. Some families live on third floors and space is limited, or they can’t make noise because of complaints from neighbors. It’s also common to hear concerns about unsafe neighborhoods, which limits outside play.

“Through lots of research, we are able to recommend indoor activities that don’t involve too much noise, but also we explain physical activity and exercise isn’t limited to a gym routine, it’s just a matter of getting up and moving,” says Levasseur. “Chores, helping mom and dad at the grocery store, getting parents to go for a walk together are all types of physical activity.”

Additionally, language and culture is a familiar barrier. Many of the families do not speak English and there are communication challenges between the parents and the children with relation to their culture, says Loaiza.

“We encourage open communication between parents and children because it is essential to making changes and maintaining them,” says Loaiza. “We emphasize at the healthy weight clinic that this is a program for the whole family and not only for the child; the family must work together in order to be successful.”

Two Girls Eating Healthy SnacksSome families come to the Healthy Weight Initiative, but just aren’t ready for change. That is where keeping health center providers engaged is so important, because once someone graduates from the initiative, but their BMI hasn’t necessarily improved, the provider might try to potentially refer them again in six months.

“We explain to participants about how their unhealthy habits were developed over a long period of time and trying to recreate healthier habits may take time,” says Levasseur. “We encourage the children to take some responsibility, but remind them that we are a team and we are here to help and support them, as well.”

The big win the team hopes for is awareness.

“As a team, we hope that the children participating become more aware of their choices and conscious of their goals," says Levasseur. "If the children leave the program with more knowledge and have made one or two positive changes, we consider that a success.”

Learn more about NICHQ’s obesity work and how you can partner with NICHQ to improve the health of your community.


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