Most of us wouldn’t go running in bone-chilling freezing rain. But no wintry mix or frigid temperatures were going to stop eleven families in Grand Rapids from crossing the finish line at the annual Alger Heights Halloween 5K. After ten weeks of preparation, which focused on increasing running time and other forms of physical activity each week, these families were ready to compete.
Staying fit is not easy; exercising and eating fresh takes a lot of planning and work. From bad weather to no place to exercise, from a lack of available fresh produce to not owning running shoes—there are countless ordinary obstacles to maintaining good health. But for low-income families, the barriers can stack up and often become insurmountable.
Recent studies have shown that income plays a larger role in determining health than race or ethnicity. Children from lower income families are more like to grow up obese or suffer from childhood obesity than those from families with higher incomes. Over the last 30 years, obesity rates have more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. Here in Michigan, about 32% of youth between the ages of 0 and 17 are overweight or obese, above the national average of 31%.
Health Net of West Michigan is working to change these statistics through FitKids360. Through the program, children ages 5-17 with a body mass index in the 85th percentile or higher, along with their families, attend seven weeks of healthy lifestyle and fitness courses in preparation for a 5K. Classes help kids and parents learn to read food labels, explain the benefits of lifestyles choices such as avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages, and stress the importance of getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Children are referred by physicians, who also follow up with the participants and their families after program completion. FitKids360 is free for participants—a game-changer for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford fitness or nutrition classes.
On a Wednesday night two weeks before the Halloween race, it was chilly out, but nothing the warm-up stretch couldn’t take care of. Parents gathered around the sign-in sheet, some having arrived together via the free transportation arranged by FitKids360.
Others chatted and enjoyed the nutritious snack staff had provided. That night it was yogurt parfait with fresh berries. The recipe was shared with parents to help them create healthy snacks that are quick, easy, and popular with kids.
Next came the warm-up, and soon enough kids began to shed their layers of jackets and sweaters. Music, laughter, and the sound of the whistle (marking the start of a game of tag) filled the crisp air. Bracelets were handed out to mark progress as families, accompanied by their volunteer mentor, took off around the park for the next 45 minutes. Some slowed to a walk at times, but even the littlest participants were there to train for the upcoming 5K run.
It paid off: on the last weekend of October, all 11 families crossed the finish line at the Alger Heights Halloween 5K. Every child participating in the race was accompanied by a volunteer mentor. This allowed the parents to run at their own pace, assured their child was well looked after and being cheered on. One young girl from the FitKids360 group finished second in her age group and another placed in the top 25 of all runners.
Feelings of empowerment, joy, and even surprise marked parents’ reactions as they crossed the finish line. Never before had they taken part in a program that broke down every barrier to healthy living, giving their families a chance to get fit along with the tools and knowledge to make more permanent lifestyle changes. The weekly sessions also brought together families that wouldn’t have otherwise met, united by their goal of getting healthy.
To celebrate their success at finishing all ten weeks of training, FitKids360 hosted a ceremony to recognize participants for their hard work. In keeping with their commitment to help families eat healthier and get more physical activity, staff handed out prizes to encourage parents and kids to continue their health journey. Each child that attended all ten weeks of training and finished the race received a pair of running shoes. Every family was given a free 30-day fitness pass for up to five family members; if a family from the program wants to join the gym permanently, they’ll receive scholarship passes.
Over the course of the two-month program, families have become close: parents bonded with one another over similar struggles with health and fitness, while their kids forged friendships based on the shared experience of training for the 5K. Since the recognition ceremony, parents have already organized a reunion.
Since its inception in 2010, FitKids360 has expanded to ten sites in Michigan and beyond, including locations in Indiana and Montana. Part of what makes the model successful is that it helps families continue down a healthy path after they finish the program. At Health Net of West Michigan, that means a series of fun, family-friendly offerings, like cooking and Zumba classes. FitKids360 graduates are also eligible for On the Move, another fitness program, and staff encourage parents and children alike to run in another 5K, like the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. This ongoing engagement can help participants stay committed and goal-focused, and maintain healthy changes they’ve achieved during the program.
Staying active and eating fresh foods isn’t easy—but it should never be impossible. Through FitKids360, families have a chance to change their health for the better. Innovative approaches that combine fitness with fun, and health education with ongoing opportunities for support, can help people make lasting changes and ultimately lead to healthier communities.