Youth Obesity Program - We Can! | Families

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Youth Obesity Program - We Can!
Families, Health, Schools

At Waterville Junior High School, health teacher Jane Dean is teaching sixth-graders how to see through deceptive junk food marketing, improve activity levels and make healthier snack choices.

At the Mitchell Elementary School in Waterville, Wendy Lagasse of MaineGeneral Health System's Prevention Center is presenting a program to third-graders in an effort to get the children to break from a national statistic -- that children average six hours a day watching TV or playing video games.

Numerous studies show a direct correlation between time spent in front of a screen and elevated risks for weight gain and related health problems, says Alan Majka, University of Maine Cooperative Extension Educator in the Kennebec County Office in Augusta. Majka is overeeing the introduction to Maine of an effective national program developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "We Can!" (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition), of which Dean and Lagasse are a part.

Majka is implementing a We Can! curriculum called CATCH Kids Club in several after-school programs in Waterville.

"Children in CATCH Kids Club have fun getting more moderate to vigorous physical activity and learning to eat more healthful snacks," he says.

Since Majka led a two-day training session last April for more than 100 participants from throughout the state, more and more schools, counties and communities are joining the effort. It reaches from classrooms and playgrounds for children and youth to the workplace for parents, teachers and others influential in children's lives.

In addition to the Waterville schools and community centers, Majka says We Can! principles are being implemented "at warp speed" at dozens of institutions and organizations in Maine, with more coming on board with impressive regularity, he says.

"We are thrilled with the response we're seeing to the program and the related school and community entities signing on," Majka says. "It's been an impressive sign that people are beginning to take the epidemic of obesity seriously and do something about it."

Approximately 60 percent of adults in Maine have weights that are high enough to increase their risk for diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. That's the highest rate in New England, according to Majka. More than a fourth of Maine middle and high school students report weights above the healthy range, he says. According to a study sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maine, medical costs, worker’s compensation and lost productivity due to poor nutrition and inactivity cost $2.56 billion per year in Maine alone.

Since April, We Can! partners in Maine have introduced activities like child and parent educational sessions connecting families with facilities and environments where they can be physically active together. County employees and their families are encouraged to eat healthier and increase physical activity. Teachers like Jane Dean and health professionals like Wendy Lagasse are providing nutrition and other resources to families.

On Oct. 20, Somerset County commissioners joined Washington and Kennebec county commissioners in signing proclamations and letters of commitment to NIH. More are expected to follow suit. Nationally, there are more than 1,400 registered We Can! sites, but only 30 have achieved the distinction of becoming official We Can! cities or counties.

Majka notes that Extension and We Can! partners will continue recruiting new participants in the groundswell initiative. Groups and individuals interested in learning more about the program are invited to call Majka at (207) 622-7546. In addition, more information is available on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at

We Can! is a collaboration among four NIH institutes: the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Cancer Institute.

Families, Health, Schools

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