First Lady Michelle Obama Praises Impact of Miami Program to Fight Childhood Obesity

The positive impact of programs to fight childhood obesity — such as the Miami-Dade County Parks’ Fit2Play after-school program, whose effectiveness has been proven by Miller School researchers — won praise from First Lady Michelle Obama during an appearance in Miami on February 25.

Obama spoke at the Gwen Cherry Park Recreation Center to promote an expanded version of her national “Let’s Move!” healthy kids program, which has now been implemented in all Miami-Dade public schools. She was introduced by actress Amy Poehler, star of the NBC comedy series “Parks and Recreation.”

“What we have here in Miami is a great example for others,” said Obama. “Kids who eat well and stay active have better grades, they have better attendance, and they have fewer disciplinary problems in school. Everyone wins. The kids are happier and healthier, and the parents can breathe a little easier.”

Gwen Cherry Park is one of 40 county parks where researchers from the Miller School’s Department of Pediatrics measure the results of the Fit2Play program. For the past four years, more than 1,500 children aged 6-14, with and without disabilities, have been assessed at the beginning and end of the school year.

“Fit2Play is a shining example of how community-based research should work. It is the best of what an academic-community collaborative can be,” said Judy Schaechter, M.D., Interim Chair of the Department of Pediatrics. “Our researchers responded to a community need; in this case, it was county parks and recreation leaders working in neighborhoods to address one of our most pressing health needs — overweight and obese children. Yet, without an evaluation, they could not prove they were effective. Our researchers conducted the review that made it possible to show how effective this community program is.”

“We measure the children’s height, weight, hip and waist circumference, and body fat; we also collect their blood pressure and a series of fitness tests,” said Sarah E. Messiah, Ph.D., research associate professor of pediatrics. “We can consistently document improvement over time in fitness and blood pressure, as well as in knowledge about nutrition and healthy lifestyle behavior.”

The results are impressive: Overweight children are significantly decreasing unhealthy weight, normal weight children are maintaining a healthy growth trajectory, and all children are improving their heart health and fitness, while also improving their knowledge about how to make healthy eating choices.

“The program is simple, low-cost and sensible,” said Schaechter. “We are thrilled that the data proves what we should all recognize as basic and true — that children moving in parks, playing sports together, getting in the habit of eating more fruits and vegetables not only makes sense, but really does improve health.”

Some school-based programs are showing similar results nationwide. Obama said that when her program launched four years ago, the rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. had tripled during the previous three decades, to the point where one child or adolescent in three was obese. Now, she noted, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had announced that obesity among young children — ages 2-5 — had fallen to 8.1 percent, from 14 percent a decade ago.

Fit2Play, however, is the only parks-based program to show evidence-based results, said Messiah, which is why the National Recreation and Park Association, another participant in the event, encouraged Obama to speak in Miami. Obama, in turn, challenged other after-school programs across the nation to “follow Miami-Dade’s lead.” The keys to change, she said, are creativity, commitment and teamwork. “With those, we can truly transform our communities on behalf of our kids. Change is contagious and adds up quickly. After just four years, healthy habits are becoming the new norm.”

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