“We were talking about making good food choices and portion control, but it just wasn’t sinking in,” said Yuri Brown, Essence Lee’s foster mother. Then Brown contacted WakeMed’s Energize! program last spring, and she set in motion what became a major lifestyle change for this Fuquay-Varina teenager. As a result of her Energize! participation, Essence lost 44 pounds from March to August, discovered how fun Zumba can be, learned what a healthy portion is, and according to her foster mother, became a more confident person.
Energize! is a 12-week program dedicated to helping children aged 6 to 18 reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Energize! teaches young people and their families how to build lifelong healthy attitudes about food and fitness through three classes a week, including a family night. In addition to classes held at WakeMed Health park, Energize! partners with the YMCA of the Triangle to hold classes at five Triangle YMCAs throughout the year.
Quiet but friendly, Essence does not seem to be aware of all her positive changes, Brown said. Nonetheless, Lee did learn this: “You can have fun while exercising. It may not always be fun while you’re doing it, like cycling and pushing yourself hard, but you feel good afterwards. And Zumba is fun while you’re doing it,” Lee said.
She also said that exercise was a little dull before, such as getting on a treadmill and walking. Energize! showed her a lot of options though, with the group playing games, mixing up their routines, doing cheer dancing and other activities.
Essence and her foster family joined in an Energize! program at the Kraft Family YMCA three nights a week. The curriculum for children aged 12-18 involves an hour of fitness, plus a 30-minute discussion on healthy lifestyles, ranging from nutrition to fast food facts, behaviors to positive body image and healthy snacks to reading nutrition labels. (For children ages 6-11, Energize! meets three nights a week with one hour of fitness.)
“With the teens, we focus on positive thinking and how they feel about their own health and body, and giving positive messages to each other. We also do a class with just parents about role modeling to help parents discover their role in helping their child grow up healthy,” said Energize’s Program Coordinator Julie Paul, MS, RD, CDE. “The Energize curriculum starts with walking activities and then builds to different activities each week like outdoor sports and recreation, group fitness, plus two weeks of cooperative games—all kinds of activities that are group and family-based,” Paul said. The goal is to expose families to many different ways to be active that do not require expensive equipment or a gym membership. Fitness measures are also taken before and after the program so participants can see the difference that exercise makes in their overall fitness level.
She also said that WakeMed trains YMCA staff in the Energize! curriculum and provides direction to help them in turn help these inactive children and teens in a very different way than many who enter the Y to get fit. Motivation and adapting fitness ideas for them is really important.
Brown sees a huge change in Lee’s attitude from the beginning of the Energize program to now; not only is she healthier and fit, but she is more outgoing, participating more and more confident in who she is. Lee won the Youth Lifestyle Change Award from the Y this year for her efforts. Lee’s foster mother says she stumbled a bit after the program ended, but that she is back on track now.
“When I was with my mom, I wanted to work out and be healthy, but I didn’t really know how. I would get a salad with all the meat and eggs and bacon bits and lots of dressing, and work out for a few days and then stop,” Lee said. Now when she outs, she makes better choices, she’s not at the snack table at parties and she drinks a gallon of water a day!
Lee even sets a positive example now for her 2-year-old sister and her foster family. “She’ll say, ‘I was out walking. What were you doing?’” Brown said. Energize! follows its participants for two years after the formal 12-week program ends; there are four appointments over two years with lab work repeated, blood pressure, height, weight and BMI check, as well as counseling and discussion about exercise and nutrition patterns, behaviors, eating out and more.
“A good number of kids in Energize lose weight, but Essence lost a substantial amount of weight. Her foster family wanted to help her and took a lot of initiative to get healthier foods at home and at school. for her. Essence’s success in the program is a testament to her perseverance,” Paul said.