By Victoria Saunders, MD
Good health is a joy—the joy, for example, of an 8-year-old boy whooping it up with a hula hoop for five minutes straight, outlasting everyone around him.
It’s the joy of tots as young as 5 and 6 practicing their favorite yoga poses: up cat, downward dog, turtle, and frog.
It’s the joy of being outdoors on a warm summer day with people you know and delighting in the taste of a piece of grilled chicken or a lean hamburger.
Good health is something to celebrate—and especially when you have worked hard to achieve it.
The families who gathered at the Arlington Pediatric Center that sunny Saturday afternoon in celebration with us had indeed worked hard to achieve good health. These were the faithful: the parents who diligently brought their kids to our Healthy Weight Program because they believed that children should get healthy lifestyles down early.
Our Center works with families who live below the poverty level. For them, healthy choices are frequently not easy ones. They struggle to afford healthy foods for their kids. And they work, so it’s difficult for them sometimes to take their kids to playgrounds and parks where they can move their bodies and just enjoy being kids—assuming they live near safe places to play.
With support from the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, we launched our Healthy Weight Program in 2014, after finding that 34 percent of our pediatric patients were overweight and 19 percent were obese. That was a wake-up call: We saw that we needed to make healthy weight a focus of our practice. Overweight and obesity are chronic conditions, and they need to be treated and prevented like any other chronic condition.
So we did a number of things.
We partnered with the Arlington County Parks and Recreations Department to create recreational “prescriptions” that give families greater access to free or low-cost resources for physical activity. We hand these prescriptions out during all our well-patient visits, regardless of whether the patient is overweight.
We employed a lactation consultant to work with new mothers, because we know that breastfeeding can help reduce overweight in children. In addition, we hired a nutritionist to counsel families on healthy eating choices with individual visits.
And we created a time, every Saturday morning, for families to come in for group visits with our nutritionist and for children to engage in some fun physical activity. The schedule varies, but there’s something going on every Saturday.
In a year and a half, our nutritionist saw 181 patients individually; another 100 came to our Saturday group sessions.
It’s made a difference: We’ve seen reductions in BMI, blood pressure and cholesterol; increases in physical activity; and greater intake of fruit and vegetables.
We didn’t expect to see these kinds of results so quickly, but our families get it. They want their children to be healthy, but they need education and they need resources.
We decided to celebrate what our families had achieved with a fun, healthy event.
For the event, we brought together various community resources, like Arlington Car-Free Diet and Capitol Bike Share. We asked people from the YMCA to create an obstacle course for the children and we had fitness and yoga instructors on hand. The WIC program held a cookbook raffle, and we awarded prizes to patients for good attendance at our Healthy Weight classes and for making the most progress in reducing their BMI.
We had barbecue and games. We wanted to show families that healthy food can taste good and that physical activity can be fun.
Everyone seemed to have a good time.
Good health really is a joy. But it’s important to recognize the hard work of families with limited choices who want their children to be healthy.
And it’s important to celebrate.
The Arlington Pediatric Center is a member of the Arlington Healthy Communities Action Team, an initiative of the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families that addresses childhood obesity in Arlington County. It is co-chaired by the Northern Virginia Health Foundation.
Photo credit: Arlington Pediatric Center