Using Education and Fitness to Combat Childhood Obesity

Obesity Clinic

A little-known program at Meharry Medical College is offering a lifeboat to children who are struggling with their weight.

The Children’s Healthy Lifestyle Center, under the direction of the Department of Pediatrics, offers prevention and intervention strategies designed to help children ages 8 to 18, and their parents, make permanent lifestyle changes.

In Tennessee, and across the country, the rate of childhood obesity has increased dramatically within the past five years; and the rate is highest among African Americans. Obesity rates among youths ages 10-17, according to the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, showed 20.6 percent of children were obese in the state of Tennessee, with the state ranking sixth out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. for childhood obesity.

The Center reaches out to this population and offers fitness classes, medical examinations and nutrition counseling at no cost to the patient.

“A large percentage of low-income minority children have a high incidence of obesity,” said Xylina D. Bean, M.D. Chair of the Department of Pediatrics. “They can’t afford memberships to the YMCA and they don’t have a culture that emphasizes exercise. We are working to change that.”

The Children’s Healthy Lifestyle Center takes a child-friendly approach to weight management. Inside the Department of Pediatrics, there is a fully-operational gym with traditional fitness equipment as well as nontraditional exercise equipment such as the Wii, an exercise video game. Children enrolled in this aspect of the program workout weekly with a staff member or one of the Meharry students.

They also participate in fun activities such as a 24-hour food recall, where a specialist talks to them about the foods they have recently eaten and how to make better choices.

Other programs in the center include Diamondz, a weekly exercise and fitness training program for girls ages 13 to 18 and the Family Education Series, designed for parents, which includes discussions on the food guide pyramids, portion sizes, eating out and reading labels.

Family education is key, according to Ileta Beasley, program manager of the center, since parents do the grocery shopping and the majority of the parents who have children in the program are overweight.

“Some of it boils down to socioeconomic status and what you can afford to eat,” Beasley said. “We help them understand that if they can’t afford the $6 apples, they shouldn’t buy chips either. We help them choose the middle ground, maybe a can of peanut butter and a bag of wheat bread.”

Beasley said the biggest challenge of the program is getting the patients to stick with it.

In the past two years, more than 60 children have signed up but, many left the program due to transportation issues or time conflicts.

Those who stay with the program exercise more, make better food choices and learn to deal with social issues that trigger overeating.

“Some have lost weight, some haven’t lost a significant amount of weight but they have changed what they eat and they have more self-esteem,” Beasley said.