Marketing Movement & Exercise

YMCAs, Schools Help Spur Youth to Exercise, Eat Healthier

By Deborah L. Vence

Health conditions related to obesity, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers, are considered the primary causes of preventable death in the United States. Yet, these illnesses continue to plague Americans, with more than one-third of adults considered obese who, on top of that, are spending more money annually in medical bills as opposed to people who are at a normal weight.

What's more, obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States, which is triple the rate from just one generation ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But, why is there such an epidemic among youth?

One reason could be that "Parents have elevated concern about the safety of their children," said Cheryl Richardson, MS, CSCS, senior director of member engagement and programming at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), Reston, Va.

Years ago, kids often would just take off on their bikes. Parents assumed they were safe. There wasn't as much worry as there is now.

"I think [it's very] limiting now. I think there are so many competing activities. Videos games are one of them," Richardson said. "Another issue we run into is so many of our kids' activities are structured. They almost don't know what to do … games and all sorts of things. Kids go to practice, but they don't go to play. They are not making decisions on how to use their time. They are being told how to use their time."

YMCAs and schools alike are working to change this pattern, however, and address youth obesity across the nation through special programs to promote wellness. Many comprehensive programs already have been established to help kids learn how to lead a healthier lifestyle—by exercising regularly and eating nutritious foods.

Get Moving

One of those programs, Richardson noted, is Let's Move Active Schools, which is part of the Let's Move! family of initiatives started by First Lady Michelle Obama. The Let's Move! Campaign, created to end childhood obesity in the United States, was first announced in February 2010—the goal being to encourage healthier food in schools, better food labeling and more physical activity for children.

An Active School is defined as a school that incorporates physical activity before, during and after school for at least 60 minutes a day.

And, some schools have done just that.

For example, Memorial Elementary School in Natick, Mass., has been successful in its physical activity program before and after school.

According to the Let's Move Active Schools website, Memorial Elementary is an active school that is thriving due to the work of a group of moms. Recognizing an opportunity in the before-school hour, the school's parents established BOKS, a free morning movement program featuring high-energy games that help prepare both the body and mind for a day of learning. The physical activity is paying off. Teachers have reported that youth in the program exhibit more confidence and a higher attention span, as well as improved academic performance.

In another example, Ridge Family Center for Learning in Elk Grove Village, Ill., focuses on physical activity during school.

Since 2009, students and teachers at Ridge Family Center for Learning have led a charge to promote healthy lifestyles through the Fuel Up to Play 60 Program. In the classroom, teachers conduct what are called "brain breaks" to energize and re-focus students throughout the day. Then, after class gets out, students in the Ridge Fit Club attempt new activities, using pedometers and heart monitors to measure their progress. Moreover, the Ridge Family Center recently transformed its annual open house into a Family Fitness Night, which boasts student-led activity stations and prizes, according to the Let's Move Active Schools website.

Schools like Memorial Elementary and Ridge Family Center are making the goal of the Let's Move Active Schools a reality, which is to make sure that every school provides a comprehensive school physical activity program (CSPAP) with quality physical education being the basis of the program. (A CSPAP is defined as an approach by which school districts and schools use all opportunities for school-based physical activity to develop physically educated students who participate in 60-plus minutes of physical activity each day and develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to be physically active for a lifetime.)

"What that is, is taking advantage of every opportunity there is to promote physical activity. Physical activity is the core. All the other things are opportunities to further develop those skills—physical activity before and after school, physical activity breaks. There is also staff involvement, being good role models, community engagement," Richardson said.

"So, for example, if my students in PE are doing a golf unit, maybe if they want more lessons, they can have more. That's how we've been working with the world of recreation," she said.

Also, she said, you can call on sports instruction experts, too. For instance, if tennis is not your area of expertise, you can have someone from a local tennis club come in and teach kids basic skills.

The five components of a CSPAP are:

  • Physical education
  • Physical activity during school
  • Physical activity before and after school
  • Staff involvement
  • Family and community involvement

And, the goal of a CSPAP is two-fold:

  • To provide a variety of school-based physical activity opportunities that enable all students to participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day.
  • To provide coordination among the CSPAP components to maximize understanding, application and practice of the knowledge and skills learned in physical education so that all students will be fully physically educated and well-equipped for a lifetime of physical activity.

Fun at the YMCA

Another way wellness programs are promoted and encouraged is through the YMCA, a nonprofit organization rooted in 10,000 communities across the United States.

Because of the YMCA, children across the country have access to healthy meals through the YMCA's Summer Food Program. The YMCA's Summer Food Program is part of a national partnership between the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) and the Walmart Foundation to address child hunger.

Research has shown that more than 30 million children in low-income communities receive free or reduced-cost meals during the school year, but only 2.3 million are able to continue to get free meals during the summer. Now, because of a $5 million grant from the Walmart Foundation, YMCAs across the country will be able to better tackle this issue. With more than 900 summer food program sites nationwide, the goal of the Y over the summer this year was to serve 4 million healthy meals and snacks to 100,000 children.

The Summer Food program also has been extended to the school year, where the Y will serve healthy meals and snacks at more than 1,400 sites in its afterschool program to provide children with nourishment and academic enrichment.

In addition, the program provides learning enrichment activities and physical activity to keep children's minds and bodies active, while also serving healthy meals and snacks. On a national level, the Y's goal is to serve 3.5 million meals and snacks throughout the 2013-14 school year.

"[We have] over 1,400 after-school meal sites," said Valerie Lawson, Y-USA's manager of program development for healthy living.

To learn more about the YMCA's Summer Food Program or find a participating location in your community, visit

"This impacts wellness … all the way through programming for adults," she said.

Additionally, with the Y's healthy living program, the focus is on wellness programs for children ages 5 through 12 and their families. The idea is to bring children and their families together to teach them about healthy eating.

Because of the YMCA, children across the country have access to healthy meals through the YMCA's Summer Food Program.

"It was developed with the five pillars in mind, [that include] eat healthy, sleep well, going outside, [play every day]," she said, adding that there also are more than 5,000 subscribers who receive a monthly YMCA newsletter, which offers tips and tools on eating healthier.

And, with those tips, families are showing that they are improving their eating habits.

For example, she noted that one family reported that they began adding fruit to everyday meals, including dinner, which ended up being two additional servings a day of fruit for the family.

Other programs through the YMCA include Family Night at the YMCA that boasts additional education on how to eat healthier, giving families a chance to try new recipes together.

For instance, at family night, families can try different [toppings], such as garbanzo beans, on salads. "Families can taste it and enjoy it together," she said. "The Y is supporting wellness, and the means on how they can do it together … offering a place to be active together."

The Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Standards that Ys are adopting across the country were created to help build a healthier future for children by offering environments that have opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity in early childcare and afterschool settings.

Specifically, they will:

  • Establish a minimum of expected physical activity for children of different ages enrolled in the programs.
  • Define food offerings by designating fruits and vegetables as snack options.
  • Define beverage offerings by designating water as the primary beverage during snack times.
  • Limit the amount of screen time.
  • Encourage breastfeeding of infants.
  • Commit Ys to conducting parent education to encourage healthy behaviors at home.

And, over the next three to four years, the standards will benefit at least 85 percent of the more than 700,000 children who participate in the Y's early childhood and afterschool childcare programs yearly in about 10,000 program sites across the country.

Getting on Track

For schools that want to begin a before or after-school physical activity program for the first time, Richardson and Lawson offered up some tips on how best to get one started.

The key is collaboration or teamwork.

For instance, Richardson suggested that parents talk with physical education teachers at their local schools to discuss the main goals of getting kids more active.

"The two of you have the same goal, [and you can talk about] how you can work together to reach those goals," Richardson said.

Meanwhile, Lawson said the collaboration with a local Y and a school is important, too.

For example, "You can work on building and providing what might be a walking trail," she said, adding that you can talk about what you need and what you would like to be working on together.

The fact is that chronic disease affects one in two adults, which is why such programs are more important than ever.

In terms of the main issue affecting kids' health, Lawson said that it's complex. "There are contributing factors," she said. "With children, it needs to be happening in our communities. Healthy living starts with the individual, and then moves into or extends to the family.

"[We're working to] reduce the risks [of chronic disease]. We have programming [to address] diabetes, or those at risk for developing diabetes; programming to reduce becoming an overweight or obese adult. There are Ys that do programming for people with Parkinson's disease … cancer prevention, cardiac programs," she said.

"Your wellness is more about managing, too, or preventing disease," she added.

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