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One Town Gets Children to Live a Healthy Lifestyle

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Sari Harrar
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo
Want your kids to eat healthy, exercise, and enjoy it? Here's how parents in Somerville, MA, turned the kid-obesity epidemic around.

Five-year-old Ben Tull pulled a big, ripe apple out of his Bob the Builder backpack one afternoon three years ago — and launched a health revolution at home.

"The school cafeteria had given kids — even kindergartners — whole fruit at lunch, and Ben was so excited he brought his home to share with his brother, his dad, and me. He called it 'The Family Fruit,'" recalls Ben's mother, Anna Huckabee Tull. Her son, who used to eat few fruits, and only after his mom had peeled and sliced them for him, was suddenly thrilled to have an entire apple. "Ever since, he's arrived home with fruit almost daily. And he started eating things I never thought he'd try, like tangerines and pears. I was blown away."

That was just the beginning. Thanks to Shape Up Somerville — a groundbreaking antiobesity program in Somerville, MA, spearheaded by public schools, local government, and Tufts University — the Tull family not only eats more healthily, they've begun biking around town for fun. And Ben, now in third grade, has started packing his own healthy snacks to earn extra points in a classroom good-eating competition. "We had wanted to be health-conscious, but Ben's led the way for the whole family," says Tull, 43.

Five years ago, when Somerville launched the battle for its children's health, the odds against the city of 77,000 seemed insurmountable. Almost 45 percent of its first, second, and third graders were overweight — 50 percent higher than the national average. The high-speed commuter traffic thundering through on its way to nearby Boston and the lack of open space (95 percent of Somerville's four square miles is developed) meant that kids had few opportunities for physical activity. Most ate far fewer than the recommended five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The unofficial Somerville High School lunch? Cool Ranch Doritos and blue Gatorade.

But the Shape Up Somerville program worked. Kids got closer to their ideal weights, grew healthier, and actually enjoyed it. During the first year, 2003-04, students in grades 1, 2, and 3 gained, on average, about one pound less as they grew than children in other comparable towns. The shift sounds small, but to the scientists, it's remarkable. When the best news about kids' obesity we've had in 25 years was May's report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that skyrocketing rates may have leveled off, Somerville bucked the national trends — within the program's first school year of operation. And while the study focused on younger elementary schoolkids, the wholesale changes the town made likely benefited every child in the system, right up through high school.

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