It’s not your typical workout session.
On a Wednesday morning in mid-August, a group of Anchorage mothers meet at Chester Creek Park with their little ones in tow. The moms stretch, sing and jog around the park while they push their children in strollers or let the kids out for a supervised romp through the grass.
From the time children are six weeks old, Alaska moms are invited to meet for a stroller-based workout with fellow moms and their kids as part of Fit4Mom Anchorage’s Stroller Strides. Fit4Mom, a national franchise, is a pre- and post-natal fitness program for moms. Monthly membership plans start at $35.
For Krystle Gard, co-owner of Fit4Mom Anchorage, it’s also an opportunity to promote healthy habits to their kids from a young age.
“So they get to see good role models, so they can see mom working out and understand that it’s fun to exercise,” she said.
Even after the workout, the moms spend extra time running around on the playground nearby with their children.
By the numbers
It’s efforts like these that are necessary to overcome childhood obesity in the U.S., including Alaska, says Karol Fink, program manager with the Alaska Obesity Prevention and Control Program.
More than a third of children were overweight or obese in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those rates are roughly the same as Alaska and the Anchorage School District, Fink says.
Kids who are obese face a greater risk for chronic diseases that health professionals used to only see in adults, Fink says, such as diabetes.
But there are economic effects as well. It costs the state more than $400 million a year to cover the medical care costs of obesity, Fink says. And those costs could rise as the age range of obese people expands.
“[T]he full consequences of the health risks, that kids are facing because of childhood obesity, we haven’t seen those yet in our health care system or in our health care costs,” Fink said. “We’ll be expecting a steep rise just due to childhood obesity.”
By 2030, Alaska Medicaid general fund spending will see a six-fold increase in the amount of money spent on obesity-related conditions every year, Fink said.
Battling childhood obesity in schools and homes
When it comes to combating childhood obesity, exercise and healthy eating go hand in hand.
“Nutrition and activity are both ways to prevent obesity,” Fink said. “One is not more important than the other; they have to be addressed in a comprehensive way.”
Within ASD, a state-funded grant program gives schools local control to hash out what type of nutrition and physical activity promotion is ideal, Fink says.
An increased number of salad bars is one example. More leafy greens are available at a number of schools as part of a two-year pilot program. Baxter Elementary School is one of those places, where the effort to have a salad bar was pushed by fifth-grader Emily McKenzie.
Adding extra time for physical activity and working on school gardens are some other examples of how ASD is encouraging a healthy lifestyle for youth, Fink said.
Healthy habits, however, are easier to keep up if they start in the home, the dietician said.
“It does build first at home,” Fink said. “If you have a physically active family, you’re more likely to be physically active your entire life and into adulthood. If you’re introduced to healthy foods early on, you have a preference for those and continue to eat those throughout life as well.”
That’s been the case for the family of Kelly Kilheffer, who is the other co-owner of Fit4Mom Anchorage with Gard. Her children prefer healthy food because it’s all they know, she says.
“[My kids] didn’t know what juice was until they were 2 and were at someone’s house,” said Kilheffer, describing how her daughter thought something was wrong with her drink, to the point of tears, when she took a sip from a water bottle that contained sugary apple juice.
“She just hadn’t been exposed to that before, so she didn’t ask [for] or need those kinds of things,” Kilheffer said.
Overcoming hurdles to a healthy lifestyle
As someone with three kids under 3 years old, eating healthy is not something that can be haphazardly handled for the Kilheffer family.
“For us, eating healthy is about preparation ahead of time,” she said.
After the Stroller Strides class Wednesday, her kids chowed down on sweet potatoes that Kilheffer steamed, peeled and mashed the night before. Homemade yogurt and watermelon were also on the menu.
“You can look in our freezer and we’ve got some meals prepared for those times when I don’t have time to throw meals together, I can just pull it out,” she said. “Even chopping fruits and vegetables and just having them ready to just grab is really important, especially with kids, ‘cuz they’re hungry, they’re hungry now and you need to feed them.”
For families restricted by tight budgets, there’s the Alaska Farmers’ Market-Quest Card Program, where for every dollar food stamp recipients spend at a farmers’ market, they get another dollar to spend there. Eleven farmers’ markets around the state are participating in the program, Fink says.
“[I]t’s providing a lot of opportunity for food stamp recipients to get healthy, nutritious, local foods,” Fink said. “It’s also benefiting our local farmers because people are spending more money with them.”
Although there are obstacles to being healthy, the Fit4Mom Anchorage women try to overcome them for themselves and for their children.
“Even if they’re small, they’re at least getting outside and experiencing what the outdoors can feel like with the moms,” Gard said.
And as obesity continues to be a serious health concern in Alaska, every little bit helps.