Taking on childhood obesity: Pilot program aims to get kids and families to develop healthy eating and physical activity habits

The Brainerd Family YMCA and Essentia Health are participating in a joint program aimed at empowering children to reach a healthy weight and live a healthier lifestyle.

Photo illustration by Metro News Service

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States -- triple the rate from just one generation ago. Today, 1 in 6 children are obese and 1 in 3 are overweight, which poses greater risks for a number of health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and mental health issues.

The Brainerd Family YMCA, along with the pediatrics department of Essentia Health, recently completed the first year of a program titled “Healthy Weight and Your Child.” The program is designed to empower children between the ages of 7-13, with the support from their families, to reach a healthy weight and live a healthier lifestyle.

“The Brainerd YMCA and Essentia Health have a long history of advancing the health and well-being of children in the Brainerd lakes community, and helping children reach a healthy weight is important now more than ever,” said Shane Riffle, Brainerd YMCA executive director. “'Healthy Weight and Your Child' helps children experience improved health outcomes and higher self-esteem, and families feel empowered to make and support healthier choices.”

The 25-session program engages the whole family, so together they can understand how the home environment and other factors influence the choices that lead to a healthy weight. Evidence shows that child weight-management programs are more effective when the whole family is involved and committed to adopting healthier habits. Additionally, the program combines three elements: healthy eating, regular physical activity and behavior change.

Made up of groups of eight to 15 children and an accompanying adult, the program creates a safe, fun and active environment for children and their families to explore and adopt proven methods to living a healthier lifestyle. Sessions are two hours in length, with the first hour delivered in a classroom setting and the second hour focusing on physical activity. Each class session takes on a different topic focused on being physically active and progressing towards making the healthy choice the easy choice.


Children eligible for the program must be between the ages of 7 and 13, have a body mass index greater than or equal to the 95th percentile, receive approval from their doctor or a health care provider, and be accompanied by an adult at every session.

Nationally the program is offered in 32 states, and 75% of children who participate reduce their BMI or slow their gain. In its first year, the results for the program locally were higher than the national average with six families completing the program at the Brainerd YMCA.

Families found the program to be a good foundation. Parents shared comments about the program helping them:

  • “open up discussions on health and nutrition,”

  • “became more active as a family,”

  • “hold each other accountable,” and

  • “encourage one another.”

One participant’s mom mentioned how her son wanted to review the nutrition chart at the restaurant before ordering his food. He wanted to see what a healthier choice might be than what he traditionally orders.
Karen Johnson, Crow Wing Energized program director, and Joanna Collins, Brainerd YMCA wellness director, recently attended a "Healthy Weight and Your Child" conference to learn more as they prepare to offer the program locally again this fall.

For more information, contact Collins at or 218-829-4767.

Navigating nutrition tips for the family

  • Look at the back of the product. That’s where the real information is located.

  • The first ingredient matters; it is the majority of the product.

  • Avoid two ingredients: partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup.

  • Avoid foods with long ingredient lists.

  • Look for 2 grams of fiber or more in grain products.

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