Memorial Hermann’s Boot Camp Gets Kids Happy and Healthy
While many are glued to their smartphones, engrossed in playing Pokémon GO, a group of 20 young students from the Aldine Independent School District took to the outdoors over the past week for a different reason: to participate in the second annual Healthy Attitudes Promote Positive Youth (H.A.P.P.Y.) Summer Boot Camp by Memorial Hermann’s Community Benefit Corporation.
The free one-week boot camp is one of three programs aimed at promoting healthier lifestyles and combating childhood obesity to help children between the ages of 10 and 14 get active, adopt healthy eating habits and improve their self esteem. As registered patients at Memorial Hermann, the students are referred to the program by their clinicians if they have a body mass index of 90 or higher, are at risk for obesity-related chronic diseases and want to make a positive and healthy lifestyle change, all while having fun.
The boot camp is a multidisciplinary program that incorporates four main components: a medical evaluation to check students’ vitals, exercise, building self-esteem and nutrition. Each day, starting at 8 a.m., students engaged in a group activity, such as kickball, to lightly warm up before working out with a physical education teacher who coached them through various calisthenics and cardiovascular-focused exercises for an hour. Afterwards, the group divided into two groups—girls and boys—to attend a nutrition consultation and small group counseling session. During the nutrition consultation, two nutritionists teach students for 45 minutes how to make healthy eating choices, read food labels and translate health tips from the boot camp to their homes.
“I’ve never known a parent that doesn’t want the best for their child, […] but sometimes they just don’t know. That’s where we come in: We address a lot of their issues and educate them on food and how you can feed your child [healthily],” said Ashley Scott, physician assistant manager and coordinator of the Happy Summer Boot Camp. “You get caught up in short order cooking, which is not good. ‘I’ll give you what you want because I want you to eat,’ but that’s not always the best thing.”
The nutritionists also provided healthy snack options, such as oatmeal, peanut butter, honey and flax seed energy balls and turkey wraps, and informational handouts for the kids to bring home and share with their parents, which Scott said is an important component to getting families, as a whole, healthier.
While the nutritionists coached kids on healthy eating, Memorial Hermann licensed clinical social worker Sarah Mack led group sessions during which students openly discussed their self-confidence issues. With societal pressures weighing heavily upon everyone, especially adolescents when they’re the most impressionable, it’s common for people to suffer from body-image and self-esteem issues at one point or another in their lives. The confluence of the “ideal” body as portrayed by the media, social media and peer pressure often skews perceptions of what it means to be beautiful and happy in our own skin.
“All of our boys and a good number of our girls have been bullied, and some of it’s for weight, some of it’s for height, some of it’s for acne,” Mack said. “They’ve all had to deal with some type of negative attention and negative comments. They carry them and it does weigh on them. Their bodies are changing, so they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with how they look and how they are.”
It’s a vicious cycle in which poor eating habits that result in unhealthy weight often go hand-in-hand with low self-confidence, but the boot camp’s holistic approach has helped students improve both aspects of their lives.
“I wanted to join because my self-esteem wasn’t really high. I was really insecure,” Samantha Salazar, 14, said. “I wanted to get healthier and make my body better, [and] they gave me tips on how to improve my self-esteem. From that, my confidence just went up. I’m eating healthier more than I used to. […] Before I had no friends and I really didn’t know where to start, but coming here, I found somewhere to start, and there are more people to talk to. It’s reassuring that you’re not alone. You’re not the only one who feels this way.”
For Mark Alvarenga, 11, getting in shape was the most rewarding part of participating in the boot camp. He saw the program as an opportunity to physically and mentally challenge himself, while getting healthier and boosting his self-esteem.
“If you get tired, then you have to endure. There’s a lot more to do, so you [have] to really push yourself to get it done,” he said. “When I’m really, really tired, I’m going to push myself, so I can get farther. I’m not going to stop.”
“Even after day one, you start to see the improvement and you start to see the changes,” Mack said. “We start with children who are very reserved, very timid, very shy and very withdrawn, but by the end of day one and day two, you see them start to make friends. You start to see them open up and to see the difference in some of our kids from the beginning of the last summer to the beginning of this summer is just unbelievable.”
The boot camp started July 6 and concluded Wednesday afternoon, but students will return every Wednesday for additional workouts until a week before the start of the new school year. With the success of the program so far, Scott said they plan to expand and make the boot camp available at all 10 of Memorial Hermann’s school-based clinics.
“Just from all the good feedback we’ve gotten, this program has sold itself,” Scott said.