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Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition: “Exercise Is Miracle Grow for the Brain”

Anita Courtney, Registered Dietician, has a saying: “Exercise is Miracle Grow for the Brain.” She is turning that belief into practice. Courtney, chairperson of the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition, Lexington, explains the Coalition’s approach to accomplish three things in the lives of children ages nine to 13, the tweens demographic. Their goal, she said, is to help children “eat better, move more, and reduce screen time.” The third thing refers to the tendency of tweens to sit for hours glued to their smart phones, television, or other small-screen device.

Courtney and Dr. Carol Bryant founded the Tweens Coalition in 2003. Dr. Bryant, whose Ph.D. in anthropology is from the University of Kentucky, is now a Distinguished USF Health Professor in Community and Family Health at the University of South Florida. Initially funded with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Tweens Coalition now has what Courtney calls “a patchwork quilt of support.” More than 30 community groups have representatives on the Coalition, including among others, the Lexington Fayette County Health Department, Baptist Health, The Bluegrass Community Foundation, United Way, and Community Ventures Corporation. They chose tweens—9 to 13 year olds—because these years are an important developmental phase and not many community services are available to them.

Why are they concerned? Kentucky has the third highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation. Courtney reports that seven out of ten of Kentucky 5 to 18 year olds have a cardiovascular risk factor. This includes things like overweight and high cholesterol. She reports that Kentucky is number one in the nation in overweight and obese high school students, grades 9 to 12. She reports seeing Type 2 diabetes (usually developed in middle age or older and often linked to overweight) in young people.

How do they motivate the young people to change their eating and exercise habits? Courtney credits Dr. Bryant with coming up with a theoretical model to make coalitions more effective. “Take a good old fashioned coalition with its networks resources and combine that with social marketing which is the sophisticated tools that commercial marketers use to understand their market audience and develop products that address their wants and barriers.” By listening a lot, using focus groups and interviews, the Coalition explores carefully how to intervene before they act. They attempt to find out what this market demographic—the tweens— see as barriers that would prevent them from using the “product” the Coalition is trying to market. What is appealing to them and what holds them back? Market to those issues. Courtney explains that you try to make your product as helpful and useful to people as you can. In this case, the “product” is healthful eating and exercise.

“The level that we work at, we try to change policy, systems, and environment that make healthy eating and physical activity more accessible and more popular for tweens,” said Courtney. To do this the Tweens Coalition has developed a number of initiatives involving research, development, and dissemination. Among the projects are Better Bites, Good Neighbor Store (GNS) Network, and School Wellness Action Plan (SWAP).

An example of working to change policy was a recent Coalition speaking appearance before the Fayette County School Board. The Coalition’s SWAP proposed three policy changes: drop the use of food as a reward, require a recess period for all elementary students, which means it does not get taken away for punishment or remedial work and has a plan for a recess where physical activity is possible in inclement weather. Third is having healthy food options available at school celebrations. Courtney cites research showing that a recess with physical activity improves focus, behavior, and ability to learn when it is included in the schedule.

One example of changing the system was the Coalition’s Better Bites program working with the four Lexington public swimming pools that have food concession stands. Did the Tweens Coalition’s efforts to change young people’s eating habits pay off? Well, in the summer of 2014, after four years of planning and marketing, the food concessions at these four pools found that fresh fruit outsold chicken nuggets three to one. It was the culmination of an effort during which the Coalition provided technical assistance in selection of foods that meet nutrition guidelines, helped with promotion and marketing, and interviewed pool patrons to see what they wanted.

Aimed especially at small neighborhood stores, the GNS Network “acts as a liaison between residents, store owners and food suppliers to help increase the amount of healthy food stocked and make changes in store safety, appearance, and community relations,” according to the Tweens website.

Volunteers are always welcome as are cash donations. For more information about the Tweens Coalition, go to their website, http://tweenslex.org. Another website Courtney recommends as one that doctors might well recommend to parents “and chock full of realistic things parents can do to help children develop healthy habits for a lifetime, eat better, move more, and reduce screen time” is http://www.wecanky.org. For more information, to join the coalition, to volunteer or donate, e-mail Anita Courtney at anitac@qx.net.

By Martha Evans Sparks, Staff Writer

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