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Published on September 27, 2016

Students learn healthy habits to ward off obesity

By Ann Friedman, Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville’s 100-year-old not-for-profit health system, St. Vincent’s HealthCare, launched a new mobile health outreach program on Sept. 6 to combat childhood obesity.

The Ministry’s Pediatric Nutrition and Wellness Initiative, which launched during National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, provides free, hands-on lessons from a registered dietitian on exercise, nutrition and stress reduction to children in low-income neighborhoods.

Nearly 100 third- through fifth-grade students at schools such as St. Patrick Catholic School, Woodland Acres Boys and Girls Club, St. Paul Catholic School and Arlington Elementary after-school program have been enrolled so far, said Registered Dietitian Michelle Lynch.

“We focus on students in third through fifth grades because it’s a great time in their lives before middle school where they can learn some healthy behaviors before their peers are more likely to influence them,” she said. “They’re able to make better decisions on their own, and early intervention is the key to prevent childhood obesity from rising.”

Lynch said the nine-week program offers kids tips such as consuming five fruits and vegetables a day, spending two hours or less a day in front of a screen watching television, on the computer or playing video games, being active for at least one hour a day and avoiding sugary drinks and foods.

“We educate them about healthier meals and snacks and have them create a plate of food using food models,” she said. “We also have them investigate food labels, learn to cook a healthy snack they can prepare themselves and learn about serving sizes.”

The program is being supported by a $100,000 grant from the Aetna Foundation as part of its Cultivating Healthy Communities initiative.

Lynch said though the grant is for two years, St. Vincent’s Healthcare has funds in place to continue the program once the grant expires.

“It’s more challenging for students and their parents to prevent their risk of being obese,” she said. “Parents aren’t around as much because many of them work two to three jobs and the lack of physical activity due to an increase in using smartphones, tablets and playing video games isn’t helping.”

Lynch also added that the program is focusing on underserved communities and food deserts, or areas that don’t have access to healthier choices within their price range, by giving them access to fruits and vegetables.

“The goal is to get parents involved in the lessons after school because it’s the most evidence based practice,” she said. “We’re going to follow-up with parents and students years after the program to see what healthy behaviors they’re continuing.”

In the future, Lynch said she hopes the program helps children use the knowledge and information they’ve learned to help them live better lives.

“I want them to have a mindset to be healthy, which will help them achieve academically and better their self-esteem,” she said. “Also, it’s important they be physically active and find something they love to do and stick with it so they don’t become obese.”

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