LIVINGSTON, NJ — The grim statistics on childhood obesity—with nearly one in five school-age children in the U.S. being considered obese—obscure a hopeful reality: obesity is a preventable and curable disease. The Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges, which has long been working to reduce obesity in the communities it serves, hopes this will be the take-home message of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

According to the YMCA, community efforts can provide parents and children guidance to make manageable lifestyle changes to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Beyond providing places for people of all ages to exercise, the Metro YMCA’s branches weave activity and healthy eating into the curriculum at its childhood learning centers and before-and after-school care programs; they provide free memberships for middle school students; and they offer community initiatives that teach people how to become more active and eat better.

In West Orange, for example, the West Essex YMCA has been helping Hispanic families with low incomes learn about healthy lifestyles through La Vida Deliciosa since 2012. Parents learn about health topics such as diabetes prevention and managing cholesterol, and then take a group exercise class, while children go to the gym with instructors who teach them about exercise and lead active games, said West Essex YMCA Executive Director Helen Flores said.

Afterward, everyone regroups to enjoy a healthy snack. Many of the La Vida Deliciosa participants also grow vegetables at the community garden at Edison Middle School.

The Sussex County YMCA allows doctors to prescribe patients who are overweight or struggling with other health problems a fitness plan through the Y First Physician Referral program.

Since 2013, when the program was expanded to serve children ages 12 and up, more than 80 adolescents were referred. The 12-week program includes a personally tailored exercise plan, ongoing support from a wellness coach, nutrition education and a free three-month YMCA membership.

“We’re trying to help kids get their weight under control by making realistic lifestyle changes,” said Sussex County YMCA Wellness Director Alma Dhuyvetter.

Childhood obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s and is now an epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children who are obese are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

A recent study found that more than 25 percent of Sussex County children in kindergarten through grade 6 were obese, which is higher than the national average. The study, directed by the Sussex County Department of Health and the North Jersey Health Collaborative’s Sussex County Committee, collected data from local elementary schools.

“The percentiles are scary,” said Dhuyvetter, who serves on the NJHC. "Something needs to be done."

In early 2019, the Sussex County YMCA will launch a new program called "Healthy Weight and Your Child," which that helps children ages 7 to 13 who are obese. The intensive 20-week program involves activity following the evidenced-based Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) curriculum and training in making behavioral changes.

The program will initially enroll 10 children and a parent or caregiver of each, but can be expanded and duplicated to run in schools and other locations, Dhuyvetter said.

Like all the Metro YMCAs' child care programs, the South Mountain YMCA follows the anti-obesity Healthy U program in its before-and after-school care programs. The 700 children learn about nutrition and stay active for at least 30 minutes a day playing fun CATCH games, according to South Mountain YMCA Associate Executive Director Eric Stoddard.

One favorite game is Dragon Tails, where children run around with small flags in their back pocket. If another child snatches the flag, the child is out, but can get right back in the game by completing a physical challenge like a set of jumping jacks, Stoddard explained. 

“We make sure we can engage all of the kids, not just the ones who are more athletic,” he said.

Children also learn about nutritious foods. The South Mountain YMCA provides 150,000 healthy snacks in the course of a school year.

“We don’t see resistance to the healthy snack option,” Stoddard said.

Healthy U was expanded to the Metro YMCA’s preschool programs a few years ago, an important move since obesity rates among children ages 2 to 5 have been increasing.

“We want to start early getting children to enjoy being active and choosing delicious foods that also are good for them,” said Stephenie Anderson, director of the West Essex YMCA’s Peanut Shell Early Learning Center in Livingston.

Anderson plans monthly healthy food projects, with classes making edibles such as vegetable soup, green smoothies and fruit kebabs.

“The kids do them collaboratively, and positive peer pressure gets them all trying new fruits and veggies,” said Anderson, adding that children also stay active throughout the day: playground play, yoga poses, walks and dance parties are all regularly scheduled activitie.

At the Wayne YMCA’s Early Childhood Learning Center, little ones learn about Go, Slow and Whoa! foods to understand which foods fuel their bodies and which ones will weigh them down, ECLC Director Jessica Malas said.

“We emphasize making healthy choices,” said Malas, adding that the children have daily playground time plus weekly gym class, where they play CATCH games.

The East Orange YMCA has a community garden where children and their parents can learn to grow their own food.

What exactly is obesity?

Children are deemed obese if their body mass index (BMI), a weight-to-height ratio, is at or above the 95th percentile for children who are the same age and sex. Children between the 85th and 95th percentile are overweight.  

The YMCA offers families tips on ways to eat healthier and get more exercise:

  • Eat & Drink Healthy: Make water the drink of choice and encourage everyone to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables by offering two or three colorful options at every meal. As a family choose a new fruit and veggie every week to taste together.  Place a full pitcher of water on the table during meals and allow children to pour their own water. Keep full water bottles available in the car and back packs. 
  • Play Every Day/Go Outside: Children should have at least an hour a day of unstructured play outside (when possible) and break a sweat at least three times a week by getting 20 minutes or more of vigorous physical activity. Join your children in games that get your hearts pumping and bodies moving. 
  • Enroll in YMCA Swim Lessons or Sports Class: YMCA swim lessons and sports classes promote healthy living. They get kids moving and teach them skills they can build upon.
  • Get Together: Eat as a family as frequently as possible. Involve kids in meal planning, preparation and clean up. In addition, adults should take a break from electronics and spend one-to-one time each day with their kids, enjoying one another’s company. 
  • Reduce Recreational Screen Time: Time spent in front of a television, computer, tablet, cell phone or video games should be limited to two hours or less per day. Make a family plan to reduce screen time at home (i.e. turn off screens during meals, charge electronics/screens in the kitchen overnight, go for a walk after a meal, set a timer to remind you to power down the screen).
  • Sleep Well: Kids and adults need to keep a regular sleep schedule; unwind together in the evenings by reading a book or listening to soft music to ensure the body is preparing for sleep. Kids are growing and need 10-12 hours of healthy sleep per night and seven to eight hours for adults.