A program that gives kids and their parents tips and tools to live a healthy lifestyle is proving to have a great impact on participants throughout several communities in BC including Nelson.
MEND is a free 10-week program for children ages 5 to 13 that are working with their families toward achieving a healthy lifestyle and healthy weight. Nelson was one of nine communities hosting MEND programs for ages 7 to 13 this fall.
Local program coordinator Cathy Potkins has a background in chronic disease. As a physiologist she’s worked in cardiac rehabilitation and diabetes for 20 years. During that time, she’s seen a great change in people’s health.
“When you look at the rates of diabetes, it’s frightening,” she said. “We know that diabetes is on the rise and so much of it is related to physical activity and the type of food we eat.”
Having worked with adults throughout her career, MEND attracted her attention because she’s always wanted to work with children as well. She feels this program is invaluable.
“It’s one of the projects the government is doing upstream,” she said.
Funded by Healthy Families BC, Childhood Obesity Foundation, BC Recreation and Parks Association, and the YMCA of Greater Vancouver, MEND offers children and their caregivers group sessions that incorporate a fun mix of interactive family activities, practical demonstrations, games, tips about healthy food, label reading and portion sizes among other tools for overall health.
Families meet twice a week for one to two-hour sessions — it varies. The first hour involves an information session and then kids leave their parents to hit the gym for a fun-based physical activity hour.
“I’ve been watching some of the sessions and the kids are just having a hoot,” said Potkins. She explained it’s important for gym time to be fun, inclusive and interactive. “For lots of kids, part of why they move away from physical activity is because their experiences haven’t been great.”
The Regional District of Central Kootenay provides three-month family passes to those who complete 80 per cent of the program.
The families that participated in the pilot program come for all kinds of reason, said Potkins.
“One young girl told me she decided she wanted to join because she wanted to make new friends and she proudly showed me the phone numbers she’d gathered up,” she said. “The reasons that people decided to come vary a bit but the goal is the same — to become a healthier family unit.”
“As parents if we try and say, ‘you need to eat this,’ we often get resistance but when kids hear why and maybe from a different source it often makes it really easy to create change,” she continued. “As parents we’re sometimes nervous about trying to implement change but when kids are keen and excited and willing to try things, it makes it so much easier.”
Tom Warshawski, pediatrician and chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, said it’s a wide phenomena among developed countries that people are eating more and are less active.
“That combination means that we’re packing on weight at unprecedented rates ever in human history,” he said.
This has real physical ramifications such as problems with blood sugar regulation, hypertension and blood lipid regulations — in kids this can affect brain development.
“In children and youth, the biggest ramification is one of diminished self esteem,” he said. “But already by adolescence, the health impacts are beginning to be felt.”
Families need help through programs like MEND because of the whole environmental package of low-cost unhealthy foods that are heavily marketed and kids are especially susceptible.
“As a parent, when you are swimming against this current, it’s difficult to instill these healthy lifestyle habits,” said Warshawski.
“All parents love their children and want them to live a healthy lifestyle in order to grow up strong and confident,” he continued. “Maintaining a healthy weight is a great indicator of a healthy lifestyle, yet close to one third of BC’s children are either overweight or obese. The MEND program teaches families healthy living habits in a positive environment to help children and youth become healthier and more confident.”
The key to MEND’s success is that it is “fun, engaging and non-judgmental,” he said. “Focus is on lifestyle not weight. That’s where more of us involved in this game are getting to is it’s the lifestyle that matters… if you get the lifestyle package right, healthy weight will develop… this isn’t about how you look, it’s about healthy lifestyle.”
Potkins meets with families at the start of the program to see if there’s a good match and then touches base with them throughout. She said feedback from parents participating in the first round has been great. She relayed some of the comments she’s heard.
“Since joining the MEND program it’s opened my mind about my family’s health, fitness and nutrition,” she said. “It’s been five weeks since the program has started and all my friends and family have really noticed the difference this program has made in my life.”
“I think this program is wonderful,” said another parent. “I have two children in the program and since the start, my kids have been really committed to making changes. They’re getting excited about healthy eating and exercise.”
Registration is now open for the second session of the 10-week program beginning in January. Families can contact Potkins at firstname.lastname@example.org or they can call 250-505-4708. Space is limited to 15 children.