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Two Worlds, One Problem

Local Breakdown

She has since lost 20 pounds and has a brown belt in tae kwon do. Lunch at Lake Braddock Secondary School, which is at 10:30 a.m., is the biggest challenge now.

"Everyone shares their food, especially french fries," she said. "My friend buys like eight packs of Pop-Tarts and hands them out to everyone. She's like really skinny and has a really high metabolism. She puts [the Pop-Tart] in my face, and I'm like 'nooooo!' and don't pay attention."

Alicia eats a snack, consisting of items such as rice cakes and lemonade, during the early lunch period, and her lunch, a sandwich, after school.

Many local suburban jurisdictions are rich in parks and recreation centers for youth sports leagues. But Kwame M. Brown, a fitness director for the Fairfax County Park Authority, said there's an exercise divide between elite athletes and other children.

"Just because you have a lot of kids participating doesn't mean that all kids are participating," Brown said. "What I see is the same kids in three different leagues and a lot of kids doing nothing." Some have been so inactive, he said, they collapse trying to do a simple squat. Two years ago, he started a program called FUNction to teach basic movement skills in summer camps.

Centreville resident Caitlin Plymyer, 13, would like to take up soccer but said she is worried about whether her teammates would accept a novice player. "I'm afraid they will make fun of me," she said.

For now, she takes nightly walks with her mother, Michelle.

Because her parents get home late from work, it's often dark by the time she and her mother head out into the streets of their Virginia Run subdivision. On a recent evening, they button little coats on their mixed-breed rescue dogs, Sassy and Lucy. There are no streetlights, and the porch lights of the large Colonials give off only a dim glow. They can walk only so far before they run into busy Pleasant Valley Road and have to loop around.

Still, Caitlin has lost five pounds by taking turkey sandwiches to school and joining a fitness class at Fair Oaks Hospital.

Close to home, Sassy tugs her leash and Caitlin begins to run. This is new. Before, any heavy exertion was difficult. She jogs along and said she shaved five minutes off her time when she did the mile around a track in her school gym class the other day.

"My whole body was red when I finished," she says. "I was still last, but it's good for me. Well, maybe there was one other kid behind me."

Caitlin's fitness class at Fair Oaks is the one McDonnell's pediatrician suggested for Devlin. F.U.N. (Fitness, Understanding and Nutrition) is a class for children 7 to 11 that covers healthy eating, exercises such as obstacle courses and tae kwon do. Dozens of children have taken the F.U.N. class in the past two years, as well as a similar hospital program called S.N.A.P. (Simple Nutrition and Physical Activity), for ages 12 to 15. The classes are $50 for six weeks.

F.U.N is modeled on a similar program that three years ago showed measurable results. Participants in the pilot program had a slight decrease in body mass index and lost almost an inch at the waist.

Shelly Sweeney, the physiologist for both programs, said the philosophy is to expose participants to nutrition basics and exercise that's fun. Baby steps are key.

"The idea is to get the whole family involved in this change of lifestyle. It's not like 'The Biggest Loser,' where you would lose 60 pounds," she said. "It's just, pick up a few of these tips, switch to skim milk and eat more colorful foods, and let's get outside and do a little bit more exercise."

During class, Devlin works up a sweat boxing on a Nintendo Wii, while his mother talks animatedly with the nutritionist. Sweeney monitors all the kids to ensure they don't cheat on Wii. Most have figured out that the interactive Wii, once heralded as a tonic for America's sedentary youths, can be played sitting on the couch and flicking the wrist.

After class, McDonnell and her son spar over whether he can have a Diet Coke. The family has cut out soda, so he is told it's water or nothing. He groans.

Such exchanges are common. They were at McDonald's recently with one of Devlin's friends, and Devlin had to get milk while his friend got a milkshake.

"It wasn't fair," Devlin said.

His mother sighed. "It's tough. It's frustrating. He'll tell me, 'You're the mean mother.' It can make me stop and hesitate. But I'm setting limits and doing the right thing."

The other day, a small miracle occurred. Jane heard the bounce of a ball and a chorus of young voices outside. She looked out to see Devlin and some neighborhood kids playing hoops in the driveway.

"It brought back memories of how things were when I was a kid," McDonnell said, before arranged play dates, Nintendo and TV addiction.

"They hear him playing basketball, and they come out now," she said. "Small changes in the neighborhood could be happening."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to the report.


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