HEAL© Alabama Fights Childhood Obesity with Nutrition and Activity

Getting the children moving to the Electric Slide are (from left): Candi Cole, Marsha Folsom, First Lady Patsy Riley,
When Christy Swaid, a former professional athlete and world champion in extreme sports, left her busy life in Los Angeles to move to Alabama with her physician husband, Dr. Swaid Swaid, she began looking for a meaningful way to use what she knew about exercise and healthy living. After seeing a news report about the obesity crisis in Alabama, Swaid wanted to do something to combat the problem where it often begins — in children.

Because physical inactivity and poor diet together account for at least 300,000 deaths each year, Swaid decided she wanted to do something to get Alabama’s children moving. She founded Health Eating Active Living (HEAL)©, an early disease prevention program for children. “My faith is important to me, and helping children is close to God’s heart,” she said. “We are seeing a horrible escalation of this disease, and it is leading to the fact that these kids are going to have a shorter life span than their parents if we don’t do something.”

HEAL© Alabama is a fitness and healthy-eating plan that targets the heart. “We realized that we needed a curriculum in our schools that could help physical education teachers get kids moving for one hour a day,” Swaid said. “We see that hour as the most important of the day, and we’ve found that proper nutrition and physical activity are linked to academic achievement, self-esteem, mental health and school attendance.”

With the help of three women, whom Swaid refers to as “HEAL Heroes,” a curriculum was designed and implemented at pilot schools around the state. Those heroes are Donna J. Hester, PhD, associate professor of physical education at UAB; Donna L. Dunaway, EdD, professor of physical education at Samford University; and Bonnie A. Spear, PhD, RD, professor of pediatrics and nutrition at UAB. “Together, we wrote daily lesson plans at a fifth-grade level and launched the program at two schools the first year and six more schools the next,” said Swaid.

Through HEAL, fifth-graders are given heart monitors and a safe zone for their heart rate. The children get into their heart rate zone by doing simple movements, which Swaid says allows each child to be successful. Movements can include things such as simple dance steps or using hula hoops to music. “We make it fun to get in the zone, and the program takes away the competitive element where some kids are less athletic than others,” she said. In addition to increasing activity, HEAL also helps families plan meals and makes suggestions for home play to encourage further physical activity. “You can show sick children how they are getting better by increasing their heart rate, and that makes them want to eat better,” Swaid said.

With the help of a grant from the Birmingham Community Foundation, HEAL is collecting data and evaluating the numbers to see how the program is affecting the health and wellness of the children. “The way to track success is we can see a child, who is in his zone, who will be able to exert himself without raising his heart rate,” said Swaid. “That’s medical proof that his cardiovascular rate has improved.” Zones are based on the fitness of the individual, she adds. “For children who are not fit, they can walk briskly and remain in their zone. For students who are fit, they have to run to stay in their zone,” Swaid said. “The zone never changes, but the effort does in order to stay in the zone.”

Swaid says the numbers are showing positive results, and those students who were successful in the pilot programs were invited last November to exercise with Gov. Bob Riley and First Lady Patsy Riley at the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery. The field trip — which included a motivational presentation by six-time Miss Olympia Cory Everson, interaction with the HEAL celebrity chef and a healthy lunch — was a reward for their excellence in the program. Children who attended represented the official HEAL Alabama pilot schools – Cullman West Elementary, Bryan Elementary, Glen Iris Elementary, Mountain Brook Elementary, Billingsley Elementary and Carver Elementary.

“This proven recipe of healthy eating and activity is a successful one, and we’re working to get more financial support to reach more schools,” said Swaid. “For years, Alabama has been a leader in the problems associated with obesity. Now we want Alabama to be the leader for finding the best solution to the problem.”

March 2008

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