Two Worlds, One Problem
Busy Suburbs See Urgent Need for Health Programs

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In the basement of Jane McDonnell's house in Centreville is a cabinet secured with a heavy Brinks lock. Inside are graham crackers, oatmeal cookie mix, cake frosting.

McDonnell's 11-year-old began closet-eating in the fall, hiding candy wrappers and cracker boxes under furniture and in nooks. Now McDonnell also locks up the Nintendo video game system and has parental controls on the television. She blocked her son's school lunch account to stop him from buying extra entrees and snacks.

Devlin McDonnell lives in an affluent Fairfax County neighborhood with wide lawns, lush parks and grocery stores abundant in fresh produce. Yet he faces roadblocks to a healthy weight.

His parents are busy and often resort to fast food eaten on the fly. He lives within walking distance of two parks, but getting him to put down the portable game player is a "literal tug of war," his mother says. A boy of about Devlin's age moved in a few doors down, and the McDonnells didn't know that for a year because the kid was never outside.

On the face of it, children in the suburbs have every advantage. They live in communities with well-funded parks systems and sports leagues and are more likely to come from affluent and better-educated families than their urban counterparts.

Yet suburbia's kids keep getting fatter, too.

Experts say the reasons are varied. Overworked parents don't cook healthy meals regularly. They let their children spend too many hours watching TV or being strapped in car seats. Crowded youth leagues might fight over field times, but many kids are left alone after school with nothing to do.

Parents say they need more resources. There are few community weight-loss programs for children in the D.C. suburbs, experts said. When the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, an advocacy group, recently compiled a list of 700 programs aimed at healthy lifestyles in the Washington region, it found only a handful of weight-loss programs for children in the suburbs, although there were several in the District.

There are scattered success stories: The YMCA recently expanded a wellness program into the suburbs and will have its first weight-loss camp in summer. Howard and Arlington counties started programs that promote exercise and good eating habits, and Howard recently unveiled a health-themed tot lot at the Mall in Columbia, complete with celery-shaped slides. A handful of child-focused fitness centers have opened around the Capital Beltway in the past two years, although some can be prohibitively expensive, with membership fees of $50 to $300 a month.

"There's very, very few places we as physicians can refer to and tell [parents] to go" to, said Diane Dubinsky, a Fairfax pediatrician.

In a recent survey of Northern Virginia parents for Inova Health System, parents said childhood obesity was a bigger problem than teen smoking, alcohol and drug abuse or reckless driving.

"We can say, 'Wow, this is a huge problem. Why hasn't it been addressed before?' In part because people didn't know what to do," said Peggy Cressy, senior director of community health at Inova, which is organizing a regional initiative against childhood obesity.

After Devlin gained several pounds in three months, Jane McDonnell searched for weeks for a weight-loss program, but all were for adults. Finally, her pediatrician steered her to a class for children 7 to 11 at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital.

"I really wanted him to have a peer group. I didn't want him to feel it was him alone," McDonnell said.

The health officer for Prince George's County, Donald Shell, dreams of creating a weight-management center for children where the entire family can attend nutrition and exercise classes. But a room set aside in the county's Suitland Health and Wellness Center sits empty, its new aerobics floor and exercise equipment unused for more than a year. He has searched in vain for $200,000 to pay for a mental health counselor and an exercise physiologist to run it.

Thirty-seven percent of children in Prince George's are overweight or obese, but like other suburban jurisdictions, the county has allocated scant resources to prevention or weight-loss programs.

"When you go beyond the theoretical discussion," finding funds is tough, Shell said.

Experts say such centers should serve children and their parents because the adults are often just as clueless about nutrition as their kids.

"Parents think they can bring their children in and just by dropping them off at the door will solve the problem," said Andy Pfefferkorn, who runs the three-year-old Just Fitness for Kids gym in Manassas. "Now they're getting 60 to 90 minutes of activity but . . . nothing's going to change in the refrigerator."

At Pfefferkorn's gym, the kids keep food diaries, snapshots of their hectic family lives. One wrote of eating baked chicken with vegetables at his mother's, then fried catfish on the weekend at his father's.

Like smaller versions of their parents, the children multitask while riding the treadmill or recumbent bike -- thumbing hand-held video games, listening to music. At the front desk, a display holds vials of icky goo to show fat content in foods such as double cheeseburgers. One mother of an overweight 6-year-old says she cried when she first brought her child to the gym, worrying that she had failed as a parent. Then she confesses that she had made beans with bacon fat the night before.

Nearby, Manassas Park resident Andrew Baynard, 13, shows off the belt holding up his jeans. He has lost the 10 pounds he put on while his parents were renovating their home. During the renovations, he ate fast food at almost every meal, including three McDonald's McChicken sandwiches for lunch -- at 360 calories and 16 grams of fat apiece.

"A lot of kids' schedules are crazy because their family schedules are crazy. They eat on the way here and there and eat at all different times, so they don't have that old-fashioned hunger cue to when they should eat and they shouldn't," said Debbie Berg, a dietician with Prince William Health System's wellness center. It's about "busy schedules and too much chaos and not enough routine."

Two years ago, Burke resident Alicia Suchicital, 12, would get winded trying to run a few yards. Dinner was often whatever her father, Guillermo, could grab on the run. She regularly indulged in tall Strawberries & Cr¿me or Double Chocolaty Chip blended-cream frappuccinos from Starbucks, either 410 or 380 calories, respectively.

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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