Mentorship program helps fight childhood obesity

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Washington, Aug 3 (ANI): A new study found that pairing healthy young adults with urban middle school students helped the adolescents adopt healthy habits, active lifestyles and a healthy weight.

The study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that linking African American, inner city adolescents in Baltimore with one-on-one mentorship from college students prevented the schoolchildren from becoming overweight for at least two years after the mentorship experience.

Researchers found the adolescents ate fewer snacks and desserts, and engaged in active play more often. The rate of overweight/obesity in the group declined five percent.

"Obesity puts children at risk for health problems now, during their adolescence, and certainly as they get older," said study's lead author, Maureen M. Black of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"It places nearly every system in a child's body at risk - the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system, the endocrine system, and can also compromise a child's mental health. Ultimately, obesity affects longevity. Childhood obesity is a defining public health issue of our time," Black said.

With the help of an advisory board made up of urban youths in Baltimore, the researchers developed the Challenge! program as a way to bring "personal trainers" directly to children's homes to demonstrate for them how to live in a healthy way.

The study enrolled 235 primarily African American children ages 11 through 16, all from low income, urban West Baltimore communities.

About 38 percent of the children were already overweight. Half of the kids were randomly assigned to the mentorship program Black and her colleagues designed, with a control group assigned to no intervention.

For mentors, researchers recruited healthy African American students or recent African American graduates from Baltimore area colleges to visit one-on-one with the children for 12 sessions.

"These were very active sessions.

"The mentors were not just talking to them. In every session they had food, and they often made the food together in the child's home. The mentors took the children to the corner store or to a nearby fast-food restaurant to learn about healthy choices.

"They visited the skating rink or went hiking in a state park to learn the importance of being physically active," Black said.

The results were significant: after two years, the rate of overweight/obesity among children enrolled in the mentorship program declined five percent, while it rose 11 percent among children in the control group.

The children chose better foods, were more physically active and ate fewer snacks and desserts than the control group.

"The kids loved it," said Black.

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics. (ANI)

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