AUSTIN (KXAN) – Childhood obesity is a growing problem nationwide, especially in Texas. The National Survey of Children’s Health says 32.2 percent of Texas children are overweight or obese. That is higher than the national average. Now, organizations like the YMCA are combating the rise with programs aimed to make children make healthier choices.
The MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do It!) program at the YMCA of Austin has helped nearly 1,000 families with children ages 7-13 learn long-term healthy habits over the last six years. Parents and children attend twice weekly sessions over a 10-week period. Families learn how to play sports, exercise and develop healthy eating habits.
Seven-year old Antonio Alvarez fits the profile: a child above his ideal weight. Along with his family, Antonio has just completed the MEND program.
“In the beginning, he would see broccoli and tell me, ‘What is this?’” his mother, Maria Alvarez says in Spanish. Doctors once told her Antonio was borderline diabetic.
Maria says Antonio now turns away unhealthy snacks, telling her he wants to lose weight instead.
The MEND program is not just about learning tips for nutrition; they also emphasize healthier habits and encourage participants to have fun during meetings.
“They came, they learned,” says Missy Quintela, YMCA of Austin Program Director. “He loved playing the class. We do extra physical activity every single class with the kids and it’s fun games so they don’t even know that they’re running around and sweating and kind of doing physical activity.”
Families are encouraged not to step on the scale while in the MEND program.
“We don’t want them to think it’s about [losing weight],” Quintela says. “As long as we help them to start getting healthy habits and start changing their routines and learning that it’s ok to go out and do like a soccer game as a family because that’s going to give you extra exercise and that’s how we want to introduce the changes.”
Former Austinite Jessie Pavelka, a trainer on NBC’s The Biggest Loser, says children need to learn to develop healthy habits early in life.
“I think you get your kid in the stroller when they can’t walk and you take them out and you get them,” Pavelka says. “Let them see you being active. One of the greatest things my parents ever did was let me see them go for runs. They surrounded me with that world and I was really lucky and I think that’s kind of one of the solutions to this whole childhood obesity thing is its surrounding them with the right environment.”
In 2005, the Texas Legislature passed SB42. The bill focuses on health education. As a result, school districts created School Health Advisory Councils. The school district appoints members of the community to ensure students learn healthy habits.
Numbers from the Texas Comptroller’s Office show the number of obese adults in Texas is expected to nearly triple between 1990 and 2030—when many of today’s children will be adults.
The Texas Education Agency and Comptroller’s Office track how healthy students in each district, school, grade and gender are. Through Reshaping Texas, you can see how school districts across the state compare to others on student health.
FitnessGram numbers show Eanes ISD has the highest percentage, 79 percent, of students whose Body Mass Index (BMI) falls within the “Healthy Fitness Zone.” Eleven percent of Eanes students fall into the “Some Risk” category, meaning they are at a moderate risk to develop medical problems because of a high BMI. Seventeen percent of students fall into the “High Risk” category to develop medical problems.
Austin ISD falls near the middle: 58 percent of students fall into the “Healthy Fitness Zone” category, 12 percent are at “Some Risk” to develop medical problems and 30 percent are at “High Risk.”
Luling ISD has the lowest percentage of students in Central Texas districts serving students in Kindergarten through 12th grade: 45 percent of Luling students are in the “Healthy Fitness Zone,” 13 percent are at moderate risk for developing health problems and 42 percent fall into the “High Risk” category for developing problems.