With childhood obesity on the rise, Columbia's primary provider of health and fitness programs, the Columbia Association, is striving to combat the disease with a pair of fitness programs for children.

The two pilot programs, YouthFit and Kids in Action, offer children of all age groups an opportunity to stay healthy and fit.

"Pediatricians have been seeing a rise in the number of overweight and obese patients," said Shawni Paraska, CA's director of community health and sustainability. "The trend continues to worsen."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of obese children ages 6 to 11 in the country has increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008.


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Paraska said CA's YouthFit program, which is based on pediatrician referral and requires participation from parents and children, was created at the request of Dr. William McKay, a pediatrician and member of CA's Medical Advisory Board.

"Pediatricians are the root of this program," Paraska said. "It is the pediatrician who refers the patient. Then I discuss the referral with the parent and child, and help them understand how Columbia YouthFit will best meet their needs."

Paraska said YouthFit, which is open to children 10 to 13, employs a registered dietitian and certified life coach to help personalize solutions for each child and family.

"Many times parents think they are making healthy decisions, only to discover how misleading some advertising and product labels can be," Paraska said. "Most parents know eating healthy and exercising are crucial to their family's health, but how do you make these changes to fit your individual lifestyle? The life coach provides the answers."

Paraska said she was surprised by the enthusiasm the children have shown toward the program.

"There was some concern that middle schoolers may feel like they were being dragged to attend something their parents wanted them to do," Paraska said. "This is definitely not the case. The children come to each class literally bouncing with enthusiasm."

Supplementing YouthFit's technical approach is Kids in Action, a recreation-oriented fitness program open to a wider variety of age groups.

"There is always something that's needed for physical fitness," CA's Kidspace manager Sarina Grewal said. "I find it is something the children are lacking. They are sitting in classrooms all the time, maybe they get a 15-minute break. They need to let out that energy."

Grewal said the six-week program, which offers classes in three age groups for children ranging in age from 5 to 13, has more of an emphasis on recreation. Kids in Action also tries to avoid the negative connotations associated with the more serious, boot-camp-style programs.

"It is focused more on games and activities," Grewal said. "We want it to be fun, and we want the kids to learn games teaching them how to keep fit."

While focusing on physical activity, Kids in Action also devotes 15 minutes of every weekly session to dieting and lifestyle habits.

Grewal said the strengths of programs like Kids in Action and YouthFit are that they place an early emphasis on the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

"The younger they start, the better off they are," Grewal said. "By the time they are in their teens, hopefully they have already established good habits and are taking care themselves."

To learn more about Columbia YouthFit or to register, go to ColumbiaAssociationNewU.org or call 410-715-3128. For more information on Kids in Action, call 410-531-8984.