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The Center for Youth Wellness

Empowering overweight adolescents to make healthy choices

Being a teenager is challenging. But being an overweight teenager can be an overwhelming struggle, especially if the young person doesn’t know the first thing about healthy nutrition or is embarrassed to be seen exercising.

Enter the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW) at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. Two years ago, it launched an innovative 10-week adolescent weight management group program designed for young people 11 to 18 years-old. The program is available at Lowell General Hospital.

Most importantly, it’s changing young lives for the better.

“Our program provides a safe, supportive environment where teens can feel comfortable learning new knowledge and skills so they can implement healthier habits on their own,” explains CYW Clinical Director Michael Leidig, MS, RD, LDN.

“The group approach has real benefits,” he continues. “Social isolation is common among overweight teens who often are struggling with friendships, teasing and bullying. In the group setting, it’s more fun and they see they’re not alone. Yet we keep the group small enough so each participant gets individual attention.”

A patient’s perspective

Sixteen-year-old Malik is one participant who has seen the program work. He says that losing weight is his number-one priority because he realizes he needs to be healthy in order to get good grades – and he wants to attend college to study mechanical engineering. A few weeks into the program, he said, “So far it’s really helping a lot; I’ve already lost five pounds. This opportunity is basically my life.”

The program is designed exclusively for 11 to 18 year-olds with a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile, or above the 85th percentile with a condition such as hypertension or hyperlipidemia. It is comprised of two initial assessment visits at Floating Hospital and 10 weekly group
sessions that occur after school for two hours at the Greater Lowell YMCA. There also are follow-up visits at three and 12 months after program completion as well as a monthly weight maintenance group.

The first hour of the after-school program, taught by a dietitian, focuses on nutrition, stress eduction and how to successfully make dietary and behavioral changes. During the second hour, enrollees take part in a variety of fun physical activities at the YMCA (all program participants receive a 10-week membership).

Impressive results

“Most teens have participated in other weight management programs and often feel judged and deprived of the foods they love, which sets them up for a negative relationship with food and healthcare providers,” Leidig says. “We focus on teaching the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the many eating situations they find themselves in.”

“For example, they may not be eating breakfast at home, they’re eating school lunches, and maybe hitting a fast-food restaurant or convenience store after school,” he continues. “We teach them healthy options to choose in all of these situations. We’re not giving out a diet or putting them on a strict calorie-,fat- or carbohydrate-controlled diet. We’re empowering them to makes the changes they want to make versus being told what to do.”

“We don’t eliminate treats either, but encourage them to reduce portion size and be mindful of what, when and why they’re eating,” he says, noting that many kids engage in emotional eating, turning to food without really being hungry.

“We don’t expect teens to lose a ton of weight during our 10-week program,” he adds. “But it’s 10 weeks of helping them build healthy living skills and empowering them to make some important long-term changes. As a result, we start to see participants consuming more fruits and vegetables, and reducing sugary drinks in particular.”

It’s an approach that’s resonating with the youth in the program.

“This program taught me that it is possible to eat and be healthy without starving myself,” one teen wrote in an evaluation of the program. “It gave me the tools to lead a healthy life, with patience and determination changes can be made. It was also very supportive. I made amazing friends and had great discussions. Through this program I learned how to lead a healthy lifestyle, and that I am not in it alone.”

“It’s unusual to get positive comments from an adolescent going through a weight management program,” Leidig says, “but during our program, a light bulb goes off and teens realize ‘I can do it.’ They decide to make changes versus being told to do so by a parent or healthcare provider. And they’re so much more likely to succeed when the idea to make a healthy change is their own idea.”

The 10-week after-school teen program is available at the Greater Lowell Family YMCA. Currently, the only out-of-pocket cost to families is a $50 administrative fee and any applicable insurance copayments for the first two assessment visits and the 3- and 12-month follow-up visits.

To learn more about the program and eligibility requirements click Comprehensive Weight Management Program for Teens or call 617-636-3381 to make an appointment.

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