Mentor Program Addresses Childhood Obesity
By Erica Plouffe Lazure
East Carolina students and children they mentor at the Boys and Girls Club are learning how to hustle.
The ECU mentors are charged with tracking heart rates and coming up with activities to keep the 30-plus children enrolled in the program moving, active and engaged.
“We have to keep them excited about it,” said project coordinator Michelle Wharton. “That’s our biggest challenge: keeping it exciting and fun.”
The project is the design of ECU exercise science professor Mike McCammon, who hopes, through mentorship, the college students will encourage elementary and middle school-aged children to become more physically active.
“Typically, the emphasis for weight loss among teenagers and children has been in dietary change. Exercise has not been a primary intervention,” McCammon said.
“With this project, I hope we can flip-flop that.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15 percent of children in the United States are overweight, but the percentages of overweight children in eastern North Carolina are considerably higher (20 percent to 34 percent).
McCammon hopes to mix mentorship and fitness to develop the best possible strategy to curb those figures and keep children in the region from becoming overweight.
A $72,500 grant from Pitt Memorial Hospital Foundation has enabled McCammon expand the program from the facilities at Minges to the Boys and Girls Club on Firetower Road. The mentors, most of whom are exercise physiology majors in the College of Health and Human Performance, are trained to help each child find activities that are both high-energy and fun.
They use mini-trampolines, interactive board games and the Dance Dance Revolution video game, as well as basketball, football and jump rope to keep up the children’s heart rates.
Each child is tested for aerobic capacity, cholesterol levels, and heart rate, which enables McCammon to set benchmarks and to track their progress during the semester.
He said the goal is not so much that the children will actually lose weight, but rather that the activity will keep their weight stable, and will help to lower cholesterol, blood fat levels and other cardiovascular problems associated with obesity.
“It’s hard for kids to understand they’re doing this for their health,” McCammon said. The ECU students receive academic credit for their involvement. While many say they enjoy the personal relationships they form with the children, they also view the experience as valuable for when they enter the workplace.
“If we go work in a fitness setting, like with any client, the trick will be not only give them the information and help them to make informed decisions, but also keep making them be motivated,” said Richard Alexander, an ECU exercise physiology major, who is one of a dozen student mentors.
“They can tell you about motivating people in a classroom. But with this program, we all get to live it,” he said.