Children push away holiday treats thanks to healthy program

n The six-month projects
aims to teach kids good
eating and fitness habits.

BY TONI LEPESKA

The Commercial Appeal

SOUTHAVEN – Any time 11-year-old Candice Walker is tempted to indulge in the fattening, sugar-laden goodies so prevalent this time of year, she reminds herself of the last three months of progress.

“We know how hard we’ve worked,” the Hernando girl said after finishing a milelong trek at a gym with friend Ashlyn Nichols. “If we eat a lot, we’ve just wasted it.”

The girls are part of a six-month program of healthy eating and fitness called Developing Athletic Children, a component of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi’s “GET A LIFE! My Life, My Health, My Choice” initiative.

Overseen by the DeSoto County Community Health Council, the initiative has worked in schools, day cares and elsewhere to train children to exercise more and eat healthier foods.

This group of children, ages 10 to 12, have been meeting twice a week since September for two hours at a time at DeSoto Athletic Center in Southaven. Mid-way through their program, the Christmas season arrived. Talk about timing.

The traditional fare of the holiday creates the very same temptations for them that their adult counterparts face.

The program leaders, however, tried to prepare the kids. Before Thanksgiving, they discussed the issue.

“We gave them different holiday tips and we asked each person to write down their own tip … then we discussed them,” said Kristen Cook, program director at the athletic center.

For Ashlyn, also 11, sugar plums aren’t dancing in her head. They are the enemy.

“Candy is bad,” Ashlyn said “You probably gain five pounds when you eat candy.”

That kind of thinking has helped Ashlyn lose weight and feel healthier. She didn’t know exactly how much she’d lost – the program does not use weight loss as the sole gauge of progress – but she knows the amount has been substantial.

“I was wearing a 16, and I went from 16 to 12. Now I’m going from 12 to a 10,” she said.

Designed for overweight kids

The program was designed for children who are overweight, physically inactive or nearly inactive and who are interested in adopting a healthy lifestyle. It started with 40 kids. About 30 come regularly now, said Amy Gipson, a DAC fitness coach.

Cordell Birge, 9, of Southaven, said he hasn’t lost any weight from his 4-foot 7-inch frame of 130 pounds, but he feels “really good.”

During a testing period recently to measure progress, Cordell paused during curl ups, then finished with 30 repetitions. He then moved on to a relay, then to basketball – his favorite activity.

His cheeks already red from effort, 13-year-old Jacob Elmore, of Horn Lake, moved from pushups to the relay. He stressed successfully making diet changes.

“I used to eat junk food stuff. I used to eat, like, potato chips, Cokes. I’d drink like three a day. Now I drink four waters a day.”

He’s lost 7 pounds.

“I feel a whole lot better. I feel like I’ve lost 100 pounds,” he said.

A healthy challenge

It’s been a challenge to get the children to translate healthy education into healthful habits.

“Each child has improved in something,” said DAC’s Cook, referencing the results of monthly tests. “Getting the kids to be responsible for what they eat the other 22 hours out of the day has been a challenge.”

For Candice, the program has made at least one lasting change. She eats her vegetables now, black-eyed peas, green peas and green beans.

“I didn’t really eat any vegetables, and I ate a lot of pizza,” she said. “I just never wanted to try them. I didn’t like them. I tried them, and I actually like them.”