Staff Mirrors Healthy Habits it Teaches Kids for Greater Emphasis

July 18, 2014
By Rachel Kremen

Learn more about anti-obesity efforts in Massachusetts

Mass in Motion Kids is an anti-obesity program currently taking place in Fitchburg and New Bedford, Mass. With training, tools and resources from NICHQ, healthcare providers screen 2-to 12-year-old children and counsel those with a body mass index greater than the 85th percentile. The Mass in Motion Kids initiative reaches out to the community via primary care and child care facilities, schools and after-school programs and a social marketing campaign. Fitchburg Community Health Connections currently serves approximately 170 children as a part of the program, teaching them about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet during repeated visits with the children and their families.

Fitchburg Community Health Connections of Fitchburg, Mass., is tackling the city’s childhood obesity problem from the inside out, with a workplace wellness program. By inspiring staff members to adopt the healthy eating and exercise habits they teach to patients, the program aims to have a greater influence on the community’s overall health.

“Fitchburg was linked with one of the highest childhood obesity rates in Massachusetts,” says Valerie Smith, the community health worker who oversees the center’s workplace wellness program. “A lot of our families are learning what is healthy through the Mass in Motion Kids project. But conversations about nutrition don’t have the same impact if the doctor is holding a high-calorie drink.”

Children learn a lot by watching the adults around them, including the staff they encounter at the center. Through the workplace wellness program, Smith hopes the center staff will become role models for good nutrition, physical activity and life balance, and help advance the center’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity in its community.

Smith encourages the staff to make healthier choices via a weekly email newsletter with tips for healthy living. A recent edition focused on the idea that a series of small changes can lead to big shifts in health. She suggested staff make one small, healthy lifestyle change for a week, and then celebrate the victory. Smith also has some goals in mind for the center as a whole. Now that the center has moved to a new building, they hope to build a gym for staff with showers and a locker room. Smith also founded a 5K race to raise funds for the center while simultaneously promoting fitness. The race is set to take place Sept. 13 and will be open to the community and staff.

Mass in Motion Kids is an anti-obesity program currently taking place in Fitchburg and New Bedford, Mass. With training, tools and resources from NICHQ, healthcare providers screen 2-to 12-year-old children and counsel those with a body mass index greater than the 85th percentile. The Mass in Motion Kids initiative reaches out to the community via primary care and child care facilities, schools and after-school programs and a social marketing campaign. Fitchburg Community Health Connections currently serves approximately 170 children as a part of the program, teaching them about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet during repeated visits with the children and their families.

As part of the workplace wellness program, Smith also encourages staff to have walking meetings whenever possible. Smith says that when she first arrived, the center had a tradition known as “Cake Wednesdays.” That practice has been curbed significantly, but donuts and bagels are still often shared amongst staff. Smith tries to make it clear that she’s not there to impose rules, but offer guidance. For example, she is trying to encourage staff to order healthier food for meetings. She doesn’t want to be known as the health police, but she’s seen staff hide their snacks as they walk by her.

“We are still in the midst of getting healthy behaviors implemented,” she admits. “Changing a culture takes time.”

Some of the staff at the Fitchburg center have taken Smith’s message to heart, however, partly due to her gracious approach. Arlene Betteridge, vice president of development for Fitchburg Community Health Connections, says Smith has an inclusive way of speaking to staff that leaves her feeling invited to try new things.

“Sometimes caregivers are so busy giving care, they forget to take good care of themselves,” Betteridge says. “I’m a lady that goes about 90 miles per hour and often works 12 hours a day. I need to give my physical body relief from all this mental initiative and sitting. Valerie reminds me to do that.”

Several staffers reach out to Smith for advice on healthy living, including registered medical assistant Marie Barns. After adopting several small, healthy changes, Barns has lost 12 pounds since February. She says the workplace wellness program has taught her to eat healthier, exercise and read ingredients. Barns hopes an exercise group will form at the center, and plans to continue making health a priority.

As staff members work toward their personal health goals, Smith believes they can act as models for the community they serve. “Healthy workers lead to healthy patients,” she says.