It’s been a long school day and a group of adolescent girls slowly start to file into the cafeteria at Cadillac Junior High. They laugh and talk, teasing one moment and offering affirmation the next, sharing the highs and lows of their day. The young women have gathered to take part in a program called Youth Fit, which aims to promote facts about healthy nutrition and increase participants’ exposure to and participation in physical activity. A partnership between Cadillac Area Public Schools, the Cadillac YMCA and Munson Healthcare-Cadillac, students are referred to the program by health care professionals, teachers and guidance staff. The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation provided initial grant funding to help get the program started.
Some of the Cadillac Youth Fit participants. Jake Punelli is a Fitness & Sports Coordinator at the Cadillac Area YMCA. He runs the Youth Fit group at the Junior High. The program started at Mackinaw Trail Middle School in November 2015. Punelli said participants keep coming back because they’re able to have fun while learning about various nutrition concepts and getting activity through games such as pickleball or an active version of the card game Uno. It’s not a health boot camp, he explained. Each session starts with a healthy snack and some type of learning exercise. The day we visited, Punelli introduced three fictional teens – one leading a balanced lifestyle, one undereating, and one engaging in unhealthy eating and exercise habits. The girls quickly identified the teen who was on the right track and discussed ways the others could improve their habits. Progress is gauged through a step test, hand grip strength test, BMI measurement and sit-up test every three months. Punelli said everyone always shows improvement in at least one area, and they enjoy seeing their hard work pay off. “It definitely puts a smile on their face, which is fun to see,” he said. The last time progress was measured, 57 percent of participants had lowered their BMI, and 71 percent showed improvement in cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and muscular endurance over a three-month period. Seventh-grade student Isabella Peccia, 13, appreciates many aspects of the Youth Fit program. It’s helped her grow closer to her best friend and at the same time has expanded her social circle. She loves pickleball and has learned a lot about the connections between eating, exercise and health. She credits the program with helping her lose 11 pounds. “It’s really boosted my confidence,” she said. Peccia’s best friend is Lauren Naugle, 14, and also in the 7th-grade. She’s never been a fan of typical gym class activities so the chance to play pickleball is a highlight for her as well. “I really enjoy it more than basketball or soccer,” Naugle said. She has a better understanding of food labels, checking regularly for the salt, sugar and fat content of items she picks out. She now views food as fuel, rather than a choice between “good” and “bad”. “I just really enjoy learning more about what to look for and what not to look for,” she said. Naugle chose to become a vegan about a year ago. She said Youth Fit has made her understand that improving her health is within her control. Her advice for others is to make changes right for them, not based on what other people want. “Not giving up is the best way to change,” she said. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
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Photo credit: Julie Bitely