“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.”
~ First Lady Michelle Obama at the Let’s Move! launch on February 9, 2010
Frank Bruni was a fat kid. He was also the New York Times food critic from 2004-2009 and the best-selling author of Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. In his deeply moving memoir, he explains the problems and perils of being fat and the emotional struggle food caused him as a child and an adult. He said he wanted to write his memoir to show “what food could do to trip people up.”
Apparently food can do a lot to trip you up. Being obese can have a devastating impact on life. A child born in this century has a one in three chance of developing diabetes and an alarmingly high percentage will suffer obesity-related conditions such as cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease. Those numbers go up dramatically in the Hispanic and African-American communities: Right now 40 percent of these children are overweight or obese.
I was a fat kid too. Nutrition and exercise have always been passions of mine as an adult, and I take an interest in movements and programs that help children and families learn to live healthier lives.
The solution to childhood obesity seems clear: It lies in early correction and prevention through diet and exercise. This will help curtail lifelong health problems, financial burdens and issues associated with social bias. Movement, along with diet, is a key ingredient in the formula for change. We need to make time for it and use that time well. While a walk around the block will help, there are some powerful, inspiring programs that are leading the way to something a bit more engaging and dynamic.
One organization, the Jump for Joy Foundation, is making a real difference. J4JF is one of the most proactive fitness nonprofits nationwide, especially when it comes to childhood obesity prevention. It works through the power of inspiration and knowledge. J4JF is the brainchild of former UNLV students and camp co-founders Anthony Alegrete and Branden Collinsworth. “We want to make it cool for kids to be fit,” Collinsworth says. “Because we’re competing with Facebook and video games, we want to make it one of the coolest experiences that they’ve ever had and something they can take with them the rest of their lives,” adds Alegrete.
As the research shows, Alegrete and Collinsworth know what they are up against. The duo formed a partnership after Alegrete began employing Collinsworth as a personal trainer. The results were remarkable enough that Alegrete told Collinsworth they had to do the same for kids.
The fitness expert and the businessman joining forces made a win-win situation. But there is a twist to the story. Ironically, Alegrete struggled with being underweight. Over time, he gained 20 pounds of muscle and got into the best shape of his life. “Without Branden,” says Alegrete, “I never would have found this direction.”
I met Branden in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is learning to bring the science of positive psychology to children to help create a positive social identity. Naturally, I wanted to learn more.
The first J4JF camp in 2010 drew three kids, but since then — through social media, the press, and word of mouth — they have became the “cool” guys of fitness and nutrition. They have now had over 100 events and camps and have helped over 3,000 kids. Although J4JF is housed at the Pearson Community Center in North Las Vegas, they also take their program on the road when necessary. They expose children to healthy social identities by offering such fun, friendly and diverse activities as basketball; dance; mixed martial arts; football; jump rope and hiphop.
The men make exercise fun and hip by bringing in celebrity athletes and entertainers and giving parents tools and education. Past celebrities have included professional boxer Lightning Lonnie Smith; KB of the Jabawockies High Profile and Prodigy dance crews; Hey Reb, the UNLV mascot, professional breakdancers; UFC fighters Gilbert “the Hurricane” Yvel, Kevin Randleman, Stephan Bonner, and Larry Mir; UNLV football stars; and even James Brewster Thompson, the world record holder in rope jumping. He wowed the camp-goers by jumping with a 6-pound metal chain for his “rope” and three people on his back.