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Overweight is not so great: Health pros offer advice to keep kids fit (Hippo, January 13)

Overweight is not so great
Health pros offer advice to keep kids fit

By Jeff Mucciarone
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With a change in family dynamics, childhood obesity has become a growing problem nationally and in New Hampshire.

Doctors are starting to zero in on children ages 6 to 12 years old in the area of obesity, and particularly boys. More and more children are spending more and more time playing video games and watching television.

Something as simple as spending family time together at the dinner table each night seems to be correlated with better health in children. Perhaps that's because parents are opting to make something that is healthier than what's on the takeout or drive-thru menu, said Kristen Rioux, community health educator at St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua.

Not only have researchers found increases in childhood obesity in the 6- to 12-year-old age range, but it's also the age group where officials believe they can make the most impact, Rioux said. The obesity rate has risen in each of the last few years, both in children and adults in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire's 2010 Obesity Data Book reported that inadequate physical activity, excessive television viewing and inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables were risk factors for obesity. In 2008, 63 percent of people in New Hampshire were overweight or obese - nearly 25 percent of people were obese, according to the Data Book. The report said nearly 13 percent of children ages 10 to 17 were obese in 2007 in New Hampshire.

St. Joseph joined with Southern New Hampshire Medical Center and Dartmouth Hitchcock and several other affiliates a few years ago to launch a campaign against childhood obesity. The medical institutions work with pediatricians to raise awareness about the issue.

Childhood obesity issues are complex. It's not as simple as kids' eating too much or not playing outside enough, officials say.

"We need to have the parents engaged," Rioux said. "If the kids aren't otherwise getting outside and being active, it's not going to happen. If you get parents to get their kids outside, it comes full circle."

St. Joseph holds a number of programs to head off obesity at the pass. It holds healthy cooking classes to help parents find ways to make healthy meals on a budget. The hospital also holds sports programs for kids to get them moving around and more aware of their bodies. So far, sports programs, which cost a nominal fee, have seen strong turnouts, Rioux said.

In a recent basketball program, kids learned how to play from the Manchester Millrats, a professional basketball team formerly based in Manchester. Kids got to take home a playbook and their own basketball. About 90 kids attended the program with the Millrats.

"So they get this introduction to this new sport, they get excited about it, and they walk away with a playbook and a ball," Rioux said. "The program did really well. "The hospital has also partnered with Tokyo Joe's in Hudson so that kids can partake in cardio kickboxing and karate lessons. "It gets them exposed to these things," Rioux said. "They become more aware of their bodies, the physical fitness, and then the nutrition side of it."

Rioux mentioned one girl who participated in the basketball program and particularly enjoyed it. She was timid at first to join a team, but after participating in the program, she now plays regularly on a team.

Oh, they're having a great time, smiles and excitement," Rioux said, adding the hospital is looking to see what grows out of the sports program, if there's more than just one-day events to put on. The hospital has more events planned, including a skating event - it's all "Just to expose kids to new sports and to get them excited about moving their bodies," Rioux said.

Kids need at least 60 minutes of activity each day to stay healthy. Time can be a factor for busy families, as well as costs. Given the tough economy, officials are concerned the financial circumstances have only further hurt families' ability to pay for youth sports.

Rioux has found parents have had extremely positive responses to the sports programs the hospital has put on. But getting the kids moving is only one piece of the puzzle. Unless parents are on board with getting their kids more active and eating healthy, it can be difficult to keep kids on the right track, officials say.

Cooking classes at St. Joseph focus not only on the meal itself, but also on keeping serving sizes in check and emphasizing family time during dinner. Rioux said research shows that children who eat at least five meals with their parents each week tend to weigh less. The hospital also has programs meant to indirectlyprevent childhood obesity just by promoting family time. The hospital held a workshop for families to come together and build a gingerbread house. "Because they're taking the time to cook together, to eat together, sharing what their day was like, we're finding that they will spend the time to make healthier foods when they're eating at the dinner table," Rioux said. "They'll shut off the TV and come back together."

Cooking classes, which aren't geared just to parents, as obesity issues are hardly confined to children, typically offer tips for making healthy and tasty meals on a budget. One class focuses on making healthy, easy and flavorful meals in a crockpot. Maybe a class focuses on whole grains or pasta. One program centered on making Thanksgiving dinner a little healthier, by slimming down side dishes. At the end, participants get to taste the food as well. And they get to leave with recipes, Rioux said.

The hospital is working to put together a summer camp where children would be learning to cook in healthy ways while also learning about nutritional information - and getting plenty of physical activity as well.