By: Patrick Totty
Starting in February, Rhode Island’s eight YMCAs will participate in JOIN, a 24-week research study on ways to help obese children and teenagers achieve healthier weight. If it meets its goals, it could become the prototype for a nationwide program that would have a direct effect on the treatment of pre-diabetes in children.
The program, designed by the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia, will involve 150 young people ages six to 17. Eligible youths must be above the 85 percentile for their age group’s body mass index and must not have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Participating YMCAs will divide the youths into two groups-six- to 12- year-olds and 13- to 17-year-olds-who will attend a series of evening and weekend classes, with mandatory attendance by a parent or guardian.
The study’s first task will be to track what each participant normally eats and his/her level of physical activity. From there, the young people will be encouraged to gradually shift their focus from so-called “less foods,” such as cookies and sugar-sweetened beverages, to so-called “yes foods,” such as fruits and vegetables.
At the same time, children who are sedentary and spend hours per day watching television or playing video games will be encouraged to cut back on those activities in small increments and use the time freed up for exercise or other physical activity.
The hope is that children in the study can be encouraged to change eating and exercise habits without having to adapt to drastic, all-at-once changes. For example, the emphasis on “yes” versus “less” foods encourages a greater consumption of “good” calories rather than an outright ban on consuming “bad” calories.
Study designer and leader Gary D. Foster, PhD, Director of Center for Obesity Research and Education, says JOIN is the first time such a youth-oriented weight-control program has been brought outside an academic setting and introduced into the “real world.” If JOIN is successful in having demonstrable effects on children’s weight and lifestyles, Dr. Foster sees it becoming the prototype for similar nationwide programs.
The study is funded by UnitedHealth Group, which underwrites a similar program for adults with pre-diabetes at Rhode island YMCAs. Begun in 2008, that program has reduced the risk among pre-diabetic participants of acquiring type 2 diabetes by 58 percent. Like the soon-to-be-launched JOIN program, it emphasizes changes in what food people consume as well as their levels of exercise.