UNC Asheville Helps Tackle Growing Problem of Childhood Obesity; "GIFT" Program to Help Families Get Fit Together
Wed, 02/11/2009 - 12:00am
UNC Asheville is offering help in the fight against childhood obesity with the fourth annual “Getting into Fitness Together” (GIFT), an eight-week program designed to help families increase levels of physical activity. The program, geared for children ages 6 to 12 and their families, features a variety of creative events, from scavenger hunts and aerobic Easter egg hunts to tag and water games, all designed to promote the enjoyment of active movement.
Registration is now open for the 2009 program. This year GIFT sessions will take place from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m. on Tuesdays, March 17-May 5, on the UNC Asheville campus. Any family concerned about weight issues in parents or children is invited to register; children cannot participate unless at least one parent is involved. Registration is $30, but as an incentive, the registration fee will be fully refunded to those who complete the program. Free parking and childcare for children ages 2 to 6 will be provided, and interested teens can be incorporated as well. GIFT is sponsored by the Bank of America and the North Carolina Center for Health & Wellness.
Some GIFT sessions will involve full-family activities, with children and parents teaming up for fun, aerobically-challenging group activities. Other sessions will offer separate activities for adults, older youth, and younger children: Adults will engage in walking, jogging, yoga, and aerobics, while active physical games and outdoor play are planned for the children. Each week, participants will also be given a "homework" activity for all family members to do together as well as a motivational incentive such as a pedometer or water bottle. Healthy snacks are served after each session.
The GIFT program, which was created by UNC Asheville Psychology Professor Melissa Himelein, enrolls 10-12 families annually. Nearly all complete the program. One reason may be the opportunity for every participating family to be mentored by a college student.
"I have watched special bonds form between families and their mentors. Mentors become part of the family and give them the extra push to stay with the program," said UNC Asheville junior Angela Kelly, who assisted with the GIFT program last year and will serve as the student coordinator for the 2009 program.
Two of Himelein’s former students, Liz Passman (’06) and Jessie Phillips (’07), have conducted research on GIFT "graduates" to see if the program had an impact. Both students found that GIFT was highly satisfying to participants and helped them to make tangible changes in physical activity or eating patterns.
According to Phillips, who presented her findings at the Southeastern Psychological Association Conference in March 2008, six months after the program ended, most families maintained improvements in three areas: greater frequency of vigorous physical activity, increased intake of fruits and vegetables, and decreased intake of fried and fast foods.
"Childhood weight issues are extremely challenging for families," said Himelein. "Rather than focusing on just one child, GIFT requires involvement of the whole family. We hope that GIFT not only helps jump start family activity levels, but also brings families together for mutual fun and enjoyment."
Taking this action is more important than ever, said Himelein. Childhood obesity is on the rise nationwide and North Carolina ranks in the top five heaviest states in the country. In Buncombe County, more than a third of children in elementary schools are overweight or obese, according to data collected by the Buncombe County Health Center in 2007. Nationwide, approximately 32% of children and adolescents, ages 2-19, are overweight or obese. For the first time in history, statistics show that children today are not expected to live longer than their parents due to the growing problem of childhood obesity.
Participating in UNC Asheville’s GIFT program is one active step in the right direction, said Himelein.