Not only are obese children at greater risk for physical health problems, but they are also more likely to suffer from poor mental health. Research has shown that they tend to have greater feelings of depression and anxiety as well as lower self-esteem and overall quality of life. Much of this is due to being the frequent targets of teasing and bullying.
In a new study, researchers wanted to find out whether participating in Fit Families — a holistic, family-based weight management program — could improve the self-perception of children with obesity.
Fit Families is a program based on social cognitive theory (SCT), which involves learning by observing others within the context of social interaction. The program was developed for areas in southern New Mexico that lack the resources to help combat childhood obesity.
The classes are held in a positive, culturally appropriate manner, and encouraged healthy food and nutrient intake and increased physical activity.
For the study, children with a body mass index at least in the 85th percentile were referred by local physicians. The final study involved 46 children, ranging from eight to 17 years of age, 57 percent of whom were female, and 80 percent of whom were Hispanic.
Families attended a series of seven weekly sessions lasting two hours and 45 minutes. Sessions began with a meal as an incentive for attendance, to make attendance more manageable for busy families and to serve as an example of nutritious, quick-meal plans that families could replicate at home.
When dinner was over, a registered dietitian taught nutrition education, a professional coached a physical activity component, and a school counselor led a lesson on feeling positive. Goal-setting was emphasized during the sessions and each lesson included a hands-on activity and discussion.
The findings show that participants experienced significant improvements in self-perception in the areas of athletic competence and physical appearance. There were no notable changes in self-perception regarding scholastic competence, social acceptance, behavioral conduct, and global self-worth.
“With our emphasis on fun physical activity, children and parents reported enjoying the Fit games at Fit Families. We believe this may have resulted in the children’s increased self-perception related to their athletic ability,” said Martha Archuleta, Ph.D., R.D., lead author of the study.
“Children also improved the perception of their physical appearance, possibly due to the way self-acceptance and diversity of body sizes were promoted.”
Although the study was small and non-randomized, it addressed a long-term need by incorporating a mental health component into a weight-management program. This allowed the program to focus on the needs of the whole child, which is not currently emphasized in treatment recommendations.
“Use of community-based childhood obesity interventions such as Fit Families provides a holistic approach to weight management that promotes positive self-perception, which may decrease the burden of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem obese youth face. It could be a cost-effective way to improve the physical and mental health of children and set them on a more optimal pathway to becoming healthy adults,” said Archuleta.
Source: Elsevier Health Sciences