Rock County childhood obesity program takes family approach

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Gina Duwe
Tuesday, August 27, 2013

JANESVILLE--About 28 percent of Wisconsin children are overweight or obese, a statistic that holds true for the Janesville area, pediatrician Dr. Julie Waraska estimates.

“I think it's easily that here,” said Waraska, of Dean Clinic-Janesville East. “Easily, one out of four that you're looking at, and not just kids that are a little overweight.”

She's seeing kids morbidly obese at ages 6, 7 and 8. 

For kids and adults, a body mass index of 25 or above is considered overweight, while 30 and up is obese, she said.

The increasing problem prompted a group of area health and education organizations to team up to offer Rock County's first program that tackles the issue with the whole family.

St. Mary's Janesville Hospital is leading the program “Fit Families Rock,” which is designed to help families with obese children learn how to lose weight, get fit and change behaviors. The 11-week program is recruiting families to participate.

“It focuses on nutrition and fitness but also the emotional part of eating that I think is oftentimes left out,” said Angie Sullivan, community education specialist at St. Mary's.

The program will feature experts on behavioral change, stress management, nutrition and exercise from St. Mary's, Dean Clinic, YMCA of Northern Rock County, UW Extension Family Living and UW-Whitewater.

Sullivan said the idea came about after talking with her colleague at UW Extension.

“We thought it would be great to develop a comprehensive weight management program since everyone kind of does a piece of it … We thought we could all come together and provide it comprehensively,” she said.

UW Extension also will complete a research study on the group's participants to identify the most effective interventions and improve the program for future offerings. Identities and family information will be confidential.

The class will meet from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays starting Sept. 23 at the YMCA in downtown Janesville. Class size is limited, and families must complete a 10-15 minute phone interview to be considered.

To be eligible, families must have at least one child between the ages of 8 and 12 who is in the 85th percentile of their age-appropriate body mass index. At least one parent must attend all sessions.

Sara and Shawn Sullivan of Janesville already have signed up for the program not just to help their son Max, 9, who meets the guidelines, but for their whole family, which includes Emma, 12, and 3-year-old twins Abby and Aiden. Sara spoke with Angie Sullivan, her sister-in-law, about what to do after learning Max's BMI raised a red flag.

Sara didn't want healthy habits to be focused on just one of her children, she said.

“I want it to be focused on our family,” she said. “I want it to be something that our family is going to do together. I want my kids as they grow up to learn how to eat healthy and how to live a healthy lifestyle. We work out, we are getting them into that. They do sports, but I want it to be lifelong.”

The program will include fitness testing for the parents, as well, and other siblings.

The family aspect of the program will make a “huge difference,” Waraska said. It's difficult when parents limit what an overweight child can eat while the rest of the family gets potato chips and sweets, she said. It becomes a punishment for the child, who will not be on board with changes.

“It feels like a group activity, not feeling singled out,” she said of the program.

A lot of kids could benefit from the program, “but you need a family that's going to be willing to work with their kids, go to the meetings and really take it on as a team,” she said.

Waraska attributes a lot of the weight issues she sees to lifestyle. Kids come in for their physicals playing handheld video games, and they play with their friends through cellphone games rather than running in the backyard.

It's funny, she said, when parents apologize for their kids' dirty socks, which means they were outside.

“To me, the dirty socks are a good thing because it means the kid hasn't spent the entire day on an Xbox or computer,” she said.

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