St. Paul program targets childhood obesityby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
Childhood obesity is on the rise across the nation. The problem is equally serious in Minnesota. Experts say the trend has been fueled by unhealthy eating and low rates of exercise, especially in low-income communities where healthy food is scarce. The St. Paul YWCA is taking advantage of what's left of summer to help kids avoid the obesity trap.
St. Paul, Minn. — In a small studio tucked away at the back of the gym, a group of students rides yellow stationary bikes in their first spinning class. The instructor, Cathy Quinlivan, rides at the front of the room facing them. She tells them to pedal as fast as they can in short bursts.
"We are doing breakaways," she said. "That's when you have to go faster than you normally would and they are about ready to recover here so [now] I'm going to have them pull back," she said.
They alternate riding fast and slow in a workout designed to improve aerobic capacity and leg strength. Quinlivan said the goal is for them to have fun while they work up a sweat.
Amina Mohamed, 17, does look like she's having fun but she hasn't forgotten how hard she's working.
"I'm sweaty. My scarf is going to get all sweaty. That's nasty. I can't do this. I've got to go to work! Oh, man," said Mohamed.
The class is part of a larger program targeted at kids at risk of obesity. The students have been meeting a few times a week this summer, doing cardio, weight lifting and other exercises. The students also work with a nutritionist and track what they eat in food diaries.
Once school starts, the kids will come for fitness and nutrition classes after school. The program currently serves about 130 teens and pre-teens who are already connected to the YWCA. But organizers hope to expand outside and start recruiting kids from surrounding neighborhoods.
Personal Trainer Troy Shoberg said he's seen a huge change from the beginning of the program in July.
"Just watching them over this eight-week period, watching their stamina improve has been pretty exciting and their attitude, more so than anything," he said. "Where it was hard for them to o 25 jumping jacks in the beginning, now they are knocking out a few sets of them and some other calisthenics and they are looking forward to it."
The program provides each student with free workout clothes. They also each get a heart rate monitor. Shoberg said learning about their heart rates helps kids connect to their bodies.
That awareness could also lower their risk of getting sick in the future. Nationally, about 20 percent of children are obese. Obesity is a serious risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers and other chronic conditions.
The YWCA's Tamara Burch said most of the program's students come from St. Paul neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and limited access to healthy food. Many of them, she said, eat too much junk, such as 5 sodas a day.
"They tell us that they are up at two and three in the morning eating pizza. It's unfortunate, but kids will be kids," she said.
Student Amina Mohammed said most of her friends eat whatever they can grab at the corner store, and most of it is junk food. But since starting the YWCA program, she said she has already changed her habits.
"I don't like eating breakfast but then they told me that that will help you maintain your weight and lose weight by eating breakfast so I've been working hard to do that," she said. "It feels better. I feel more energetic. I don't feel as hungry as I used to around 12 o'clock. So, it really does help."
Mohammed said with work and school her schedule is packed but she's hoping to keep eating breakfast every day when school starts.
Back in the studio, spin class is winding down.
Trainer Quinlivan walks the students through some stretches. Then class is over. The students wipe down their bikes and head for the water fountains.
University of Minnesota professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer praises the YWCA's approach to obesity prevention. But she said classes like these just aren't enough.
"Is this program going to solve the problem? I don't think any one program is going to solve the problem," she said. "I think we need coordinated efforts between programs for children, environmental change, policy change, outreach to parents, and all of those things together will hopefully reverse the trend."
State Department of Health officials say they are working hard to increase the availability of healthy food and free places to exercise. With the cost of health care soaring, they say helping kids avoid obesity is more important than ever.
- All Things Considered, 08/19/2008, 5:50 p.m.