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Good Habits Start Young

Childhood obesity is a national epidemic — in fact, nearly one in three children in the U.S. is considered overweight or obese. As we all know, losing weight can be a struggle, but it’s even more difficult for children, preteens and teenagers. Cleveland Clinic’s Fit Youth program aims to make it easier for children who are overweight or obese and their families to get serious about weight management. The program helps them learn to embrace healthier eating habits, improve fitness and better manage stress.

Does fit youth work? Just ask 13-year-old Jacob Kenerson of Hudson. Since he and his mom, Janet, participated in the program at Cleveland Clinic Willoughby Hills Family Health Center, his weight has remained in the normal range. He frequently tells his parents that, though he likes what they made for dinner, more vegetables should have been included! “Jacob and his family exemplify all we hope to accomplish with Fit Youth,” says Eileen Kennedy, PhD, pediatric psychologist and Fit Youth program director. “In our program, family members work together to take charge of their health. We teach participants how to make better choices about food and fitness, and our trained specialists help families come up with solutions to enhance their lives.”

The Fit Youth program brings families together with Cleveland Clinic specialists, including pediatric psychologists, registered dietitians, exercise physiologists and pediatricians. Separate 12-week sessions are offered for children (ages 7 to 11) and for teens (ages 12 to 16), along with their parents. In many cases, one parent attends routinely, but in others, both parents come, or they alternate — whatever works best with busy schedules.

“Each 90-minute class starts with kids and parents exercising together for 30 minutes,” says Catherine Gaw, PsyD, a clinical child psychologist who leads the Fit Youth team at Willoughby Hills. “Then the kids and parents split up, each group spending time with a dietitian and a psychologist.”

"Jacob and his family exemplify all we hope to accomplish with Fit Youth”

The different components of each session address a variety of topics:

  • Psychologists work with families to set goals and replace harmful habits with healthy new ones.
  • Registered dietitians explain the new MyPlate nutrition guide, define portion sizes, show the group how to read food labels and offer guidance on eating out and healthy snacking.
  • An exercise physiologist teaches the four components of exercise — aerobic, strength, flexibility and balance — in the context of fun games and activities.

“My favorite part of the program was playing games. Because I was there in winter, they taught us things we could do inside. They showed us how to exercise, but in a fun way,” says Jacob.

Like many children who participate in the program, Jacob was referred by his pediatrician. Although Jacob was just borderline overweight, Janet says she felt the program would be a great way to address the weight issue early on and help her son develop good habits for a lifetime.

“In many cases, children who are overweight have parents who are also overweight,” says Dr. Gaw. “That’s why Fit Youth is a family weight management program. Weight loss is truly a journey — we expect things to come up that will throw people off track, so we teach them what they need to know to get back on board. We support people in making change, but we know that every family is different and not every change will work for everybody.”

Related Institutes: Wellness & Preventive Medicine, Cleveland Clinic Children's
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