Norma Villegas and her daughters Ailyn, 11, and Liliana, 7, were like many families. They were eating out a lot and not very active. Then she got a flyer last school year about the MEND program at the YMCA of Austin.
MEND, which stands for Mind Exercise Nutrition Do it, started in England, before the YMCA of Austin brought it here in 2009. The 10-week program is available for families of kids ages 7 to 13 who have a body mass index that falls within the obesity range at no cost to families.
The weekly program takes place at a school or community center that is centrally located to accommodate the program participants. Each week, the families spend the first hour learning about nutrition and what to look for when grocery shopping. They also learn how the mind works with the body to determine when and why you are hungry. In the second hour, the kids learn about different physical activities they can do and the parents learn about parental strategies to reinforce the healthy behavior.
It’s about making small changes, Missy Quintela, Program Director says. “This is not ‘The Biggest Loser,'” she says. “We’re not trying to do extreme weight loss.”
In fact, Quintela says, because children are growing and their bodies are changing, it’s not realistic to focus on the number on the scale. “If you have different routines and healthy habits now, the body will change with that.”
That’s what Villegas says has happened with her family. They haven’t necessarily lost weight, but her daughters were gaining a lot of weight before. “They are more active now, too,” she says. “They try to do things they normally wouldn’t do like play outside rather than watching TV.”
Villegas also appreciated hearing suggestions from the other families in her group. She didn’t feel like they were the only family struggling with how to be healthier.
As an incentive and effort to encourage sustainable lifestyle changes and promote healthy environments, the YMCA provides a three month family membership, as well as enrollment in youth sports.
It costs the YMCA about $1,000 a family, but Quintela says it’s “part of our commitment to helping our community.” The hope is that changing habits now will help prevent chronic diseases like Type II diabetes in the future.
The YMCA of Austin has received $1.5 million in funding for MEND since 2009 from the St. David’s Foundation.
“What impressed me most about MEND in the very first meeting is they had some demonstrated outcomes,” says St. David’s Foundation CEO Earl Maxwell. “We were two to three years into beginning to fund childhood obesity prevention programs and we were having a hard time finding programs that had demonstrated outcomes.”
The program is also part of a three-year study by the Centers for Disease Control that is looking at the outcomes of several childhood obesity programs. Deanna Hoelscher, a University of Texas School of Public Health professor, and director of the Michael and Susan Dell Center For Healthy Living, is leading the research into MEND as well as the CATCH program — the Coordinated Approach to Child Health — done through the schools. While there has been some preliminary results, the final study won’t be released until the first the year.