Solving childhood obesity one community at a time

Childhood obesity is a complex issue not easily solved with a one-size-fits-all solution.

That’s why one suburban town in Massachusetts decided to attack the problem from all angles: at home, school, work and play.

“Building a Healthy Northborough” is an initiative supported by the MetroWest Health Foundation in partnership with Mass in Motion, to find concrete ways to create an environment that supports healthy eating habits and physical activity for youth and their families.

Northborough’s initiative is part of statewide effort to reduce obesity and get people moving. As a consultant hired to work with the town on the initiative, it has been exciting for me to watch as the community has made real and lasting changes.

In a time when close to one-third of children are obese and many more are overweight, it is critical to look beyond individual behaviors and address the root causes of the problem—and that’s what Northborough is doing. Northborough’s approach has been to involve the entire community —including school administrators, local businesses, government, youth, and families—and get leaders to make changes on a broad-based environmental and policy level.

What we’ve found in Northborough is that it takes many parts of the community to be involved – not just the schools, but also afterschool program providers, as well as the recreation department. And private business along with town departments such as planning, health, and family and youth services are also taking part.

Schools for example, are identifying places where traditional approaches can be revisited. In Northborough, the Marion E. Zeh Elementary School changed its schedule after a group of teachers recommended that recess be moved before lunch rather than after. School officials discovered that when children eat their lunch after recess, they are calmer and they have time to eat their vegetables as well as their main meal.

The national, evidence-based CATCH Kids Club after-school program for children in the Northborough Extended Day Program, encourages peer interaction, teaches children activities they can play any time, enhances their skills to do these activities and reinforces the importance of healthy eating and physical activity.

Northborough’s Planning Department is making community changes including adding benches to walking trails. This improves the appearance of the trail and also helps increase use among individuals at all levels of fitness, such as beginners who need frequent breaks.

At the policy and systems level, we are working to change cultural influences through several efforts to market the healthy living message, including a newsletter highlighting overall Building a Healthy Northborough and school-related activities, healthy food recipes and weather-appropriate physical activities.

This all-inclusive model is working for obesity. It’s time we started to look at other public health problems through the same lens.


This post was originally published on by the Metrowest Health Foundation Blog on April 23, 2012

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