“I tried plain lettuce this week!” exclaimed 7-year-old Tyler at the beginning of class. “Nice! What did you think about that plain lettuce?” I asked him. He shrugged, then grinned. “It was pretty good. It tastes better without dressing.” After I placed a well-earned sticker next to his picture on the class star chart, a mother explained to me that her daughter tried a banana for the first time and followed several exercise videos with her four siblings. Pride washed over both mother and daughter’s faces. I could do the happy dance right here, right now, just thinking about those kids’ accomplishments. Hearing children’s proud stories of eating breakfast every day, or how many times they road their bikes the past week, is the most rewarding part of being Theory Leader for the YMCA’s MEND 7-13 Program.
MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do It!) is a healthy lifestyle program for overweight or obese children, age seven through thirteen, and their families. Established in 2004 in the United Kingdom, MEND has helped thousands of families around the world to reach or maintain a healthy weight in order to live fitter, healthier, and happier lives (1).
The guiding principles of the program were developed by key professionals, including psychiatrists and dietitians, and the program itself is evidence-based and research-proven. In fact, results from a randomized control trial that compares the health outcomes of children in MEND versus children not in the program have indicated positive health benefits as a result of being in the program (2).
Specifically, 12 months after the program, the MEND children had smaller waist circumferences, improved self-esteem, improved physical and cardiovascular fitness, and were less sedentary than the control group (2). The research showing MEND’s effectiveness at improving the health of children is impressive, but I have to admit that I am even more impressed by the visible lifestyle improvements I witnessed each individual child make in my class.
The parents are excited, too. A few weeks into the program, a mother told me she couldn’t believe her son and daughter were actually asking for whole-grain bread. Not even two weeks before, asking these kids to eat a sandwich made with anything but white bread would be about as easy as asking them to clean their baby sister’s diaper hamper. Now they simply know better.
These kids now understand why refined flours aren’t as healthy as whole grains, and to top that off, they think it’s cool to be healthy. Other parents shared similar stories of their children suddenly refusing to eat junk food because it was “MEND-unfriendly.” How could it be that these children became so enthusiastic about healthy eating when only weeks before they resisted their parents’ pleadings to eat their veggies?
There are several reasons these kids quickly warmed up to the idea of healthy living, but a huge part of it is that they witnessed their peers trying new things and making similar changes. It is not uncommon for an overweight child to be given extra (well-intentioned) attention by his parents to eat less or to eat healthier, while other healthier-weight siblings are allowed to eat whatever they like. In MEND, these children are no longer singled-out -- everyone in the program has the same focus on health and fitness. In fact, MEND encourages the parents to include the entire family in the lifestyle changes their MEND children are making. Accordingly, even parents find they reach a healthier weight while in the program.
Another prominent reason MEND is successful is that it approaches health from all angles. Not only do the children learn about nutrition in the classroom, but half of their MEND time is spent with the MEND Activity Leaders doing fun activities that keep them moving and smiling.
Some of these children have had bad experiences with sports or in P.E. at school, but all of them end up enjoying the MEND activities and feeling good about themselves. While the children play soccer, dance or practice yoga, their parents participate in discussions centered on the psychological (Mind) aspects of making healthy lifestyle changes, such as how to steer clear of things that trigger unhealthy behaviors in their children.
Finally, MEND offers experiential learning opportunities. The pinnacle of the program is when the families meet at a local grocery store and the children practice reading nutrition labels. As a nutritionist, there’s nothing more heart-warming than watching a seven-year-old talk to her mom—with authentic concern—about the trans-fat content of a package of cookies.
The Fall MEND session concluded last month, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver is gearing up to start another MEND session in two Metro Denver locations this January. If you know any families who might want to join the program, or if you are interested in applying for a position as a MEND leader, please contact Monica Thompson at the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver at 720-524-2747. It has been a rewarding experience being a part of an amazing program that truly sets children up for fitter, healthier, and happier lives.
1. MEND: How We Work. http://www.mendcentral.org/aboutus/howwework. Accessed Nov 17, 2013.
2. Sacher, P., Kolotourou, M., Chadwick, P., Cole, T., Lawson, M., Lucas, A., and Singhal, A. Randomized controlled trial of the MEND program: a family-based community intervention for childhood obesity. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2010, 10(1): S62-68. Doi: 10.1038/oby.2009.433.