University program teaches parents, children better health

The battle against childhood obesity may not be won with a diet but with family activities.

Positively Fit, a 10-week family-based intervention program at Kansas University designed to teach parents and children better health practices, may have the answer to curbing the obesity problem. Ric Steele, Professor of Applied Behavioral Science and Psychology, said increasing physical activity as a family is the key.

“We want to get families to be together,” Steele said. “All the principles we talk about are good for everyone in the house regardless of weight status.”

Those principles include limiting high-calorie foods, reducing time spent in front of TVs and computers, increasing healthy foods and increasing physical activity.

Steele said getting parents involved adds a role-model element.

“Having mom or dad sit watching TV and then telling the kids to go outside and play doesn’t work,” he said.

Steele said having parents around also has a safety benefit, because many kids do not live in neighborhoods where it is safe for them play outside.

Positively Fit involves individual participation by about a half dozen families. Therapists teach each family different ways to incorporate healthy foods and physical activities into their lives. “Homework assignments” challenge the families to actually try the practices at home.

The families come together regularly over the 10 weeks for further education and to talk about their progression. The group setting allows families to share what worked for them and what didn’t. Steele said sessions are designed to help families think about positive and creative ways to implement lifestyle changes.

“The families can use each other’s expertise in figuring out how to get theses principles into behaviors,” he said.

For privacy reasons, none of the current families in the program were available to discuss the program.

A recent study conducted by Steele shows that children who participate in Positively Fit see benefits beyond weight loss. Steele and his team of graduate students tracked about 100 families, some in Positively Fit and some in an education-only program, for a year. The results show that not only do children in Positively Fit lose weight, but they also see a marked improvement in their quality of life.

“There’s long-term positive benefits,” Steele said.

The quality of life metric that Steele used measures not only physical elements but also social interactions and academic functions.

Steele said the research side of his work deals with finding out what kind of supports therapists need to provide for families. He said some families struggle to make changes because of a number of reasons. Unfortunately over half of the families slip back into less than ideal health behaviors over time.

“We want to be able to give them the tools they need so that it is as likely as possible for them to stick with some of these health behaviors,” Steele said.

Positively Fit is offered free of charge, with classes held at the Dole Human Development Center, 1000 Sunnyside Ave. Steele said enrollment is ongoing.