Two doctors from New York have created a program to directly involve parents in their children’s physical and nutritional activities, and have shown that such involvement may be key to encouraging children to keep it up.
The Fit Kids for Life program was started in 1998 by pediatric cardiologist Peter Morelli, who recognized the importance of teaching children and parents about healthy lifestyles to prevent future heart disease and diabetes. Many of Dr. Morelli’s patients and families were battling heart disease and obesity, and there was a lack of resources in the area to address the growing health issues.
Recently, the program began incorporating parents and is now called Fit Families for Life (FFFL). FFFL combines health screening, intervention methods and family involvement, based on recommendations for addressing childhood obesity published in the journal Pediatrics. The program is offered to children and families who are facing at least one of the following health risk factors: overweight or obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or Type 2 diabetes/metabolic syndrome.
The program is held at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, New York, and to date has reached nearly 900 children and their families who reside in Suffolk or Nassau counties. FFFL is currently directed by Peter Morelli, M.D., of Columbia University and PreventObesity.net Leader Sharon Martino, P.T., Ph.D., of Stony Brook University.
Over 20 sessions, participants are exposed to nutritional education, physical activity training, yoga and stress reduction, and behavioral modification strategies. Children and parents attend nutritional education classes offered by a registered dietitian, and get involved in fitness classes that include strength training, cardiovascular exercise and core strengthening, yoga, and behavioral modification workshops. An outdoor hike and a community 5K race are also included in the 10-week program.
“The program is designed to provide individual tailored interventions while simultaneously encouraging group participation. We are able to achieve this by enlisting more than 30 student volunteers each session who serve as one-on one fitness trainers,” says Martino. “This feature of our program is invaluable and also teaches the next generation of health care providers how to address this serious and contemporary health issue.”
Martino and Morelli led a pilot study of the program to evaluate the effect and feasibility of involving parents. The study showed that children’s fitness levels improved, including strength, agility, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance, and improved body composition (measured by DEXA body scan). Both parents and children reported an improvement in their quality of life.
After the first 10 weeks, children were asked to continue the program for another 10 weeks at home. The researchers expected to see a drop-off in improvement, but surprisingly they found the opposite: Children continued to improve in the weeks following the program.
“This is encouraging to us as it may mean that children adopted healthy lifestyle changes and were able to maintain them for at least 10 weeks,” explains Dr. Martino. “From a clinical perspective, these findings speak to the importance of at-home programs that are motivating, fun and come with clear instructions.”
Parents and children were asked to keep exercise and food journals, but very few participants completed that task. The researchers are now exploring the use of technology, such as accelerometers and web-based programs, to help with record keeping during the program.
“The Fit Families program is phenomenal. Dr. Martino and Dr. Morelli are extremely caring and compassionate and dedicate a lot of time to teaching families about nutrition and fitness,” shared Lorraine and Rudy Cannavale, parents who are participating in FFFL with their son Rudy. “They are excellent role models and truly care about the participants learning the necessary tools to live a healthier lifestyle. They understand the importance of getting the whole family involved while running the program as a team effort to ensure everyone succeeds.”
Having parents involved may also further improve attendance and health outcomes for children. In their initial observations, attendance increased by 10 percent for children whose parents were also involved in the program. Children with parents involved also had a greater number of steps per day on a pedometer. Ninety percent of the parents involved had not exercised in more than 10 years, and children reported being happy to see their parents getting healthier.
“I enjoyed this program because I learned about exercise and nutrition in a fun, motivational and inspirational environment. I especially liked the activities we did in groups,” says Rudy, the Cannavale’s son. “I apply the skills I learned when making everyday decisions to select healthier eating options and exercise regularly to build and maintain a more fit lifestyle.”
For more information on the Fit Families for Life program, please visit their website.