YMCA MEND program helps Austin families learn to be healthier together

The MEND program at the YMCA of Austin teaches families how to have fun exercising.
The MEND program at the YMCA of Austin teaches families how to have fun exercising.

Norma Villegas and her daughters Ailyn, 11, and Liliana, 7, were like many families. They were eating out a lot and not very active. Then she got a flyer last school year about the MEND program at the YMCA.

MEND, which stands for Mind Exercise Nutrition Do it, started in England, before the YMCA of Austin brought it here in 2009. The free 10-week program is available for families of kids ages 7 to 13 who have a body mass index that falls within the obesity range. If one kid qualifies, the whole family can be in the program even if the other children don’t meet those qualifications.

The weekly program takes place at a school or community center that is near the up to 15 families enrolled in each session. Each week, the families spend the first hour learning about nutrition and what to look for when grocery shopping. They also learn how the mind works with the body to determine when and why you are hungry. In the second hour, the kids learn about different physical activities they can do and the parents learn about parenting strategies.

The strategies include adding one new thing each week that your family is going to do differently such as drinking more water, playing outside as a family for 30 minutes a day and trying a new vegetable.

YMCA of Austin's MEND program includes an hour of exercise while kids' parents talk about how to support healthier choices.
YMCA of Austin’s MEND program includes an hour of exercise while kids’ parents talk about how to support healthier choices.

“It’s really geared toward getting you on the same side as your kid,” says Missy Quintela, MEND program manager at the YMCA of Austin.

It’s about making small changes, Quintela says. “This is not ‘The Biggest Loser,'” she says. “We’re not trying to do extreme weight loss.”

In fact, Quintela says, because children are growing and their bodies are changing, it’s not realistic to focus on the number on the scale. “If you have different routines and healthy habits now, the body will change with that.”

That’s what Villegas says has happened with her family. They haven’t necessarily lost weight, but her daughters were gaining a lot of weight before. “They are more active now, too,” she says. “They try to do things they normally wouldn’t do like play outside rather than watching TV.”

This summer the family has been going swimming in the pool. They’ve also added more whole grains and replacing not-good-for-you foods with healthier alternatives. Instead of saying “No, you can’t have this,” she now says, “You cannot have this, but you can have this and this is really good for you,” Villegas says. “They’re OK with making the change.”

Instead of eating out breakfast, lunch and dinner, they started small with just eating out one meal a day and now only eat out once a week on Sunday.

Villegas also appreciated hearing suggestions from the other families in her group. She didn’t feel like they were the only family struggling with how to be healthier.

The YMCA follows the family for a year and offers a three-month free membership to the YMCA, as well as enrollment in youth sports.

It costs the YMCA about $1,000 a family, but Quintela says it’s “part of our commitment to helping our community.” The hope is that changing habits now will help prevent chronic diseases like Type II diabetes in the future.

The YMCA of Austin has received $1.5 million in funding for MEND since 2009 from the St. David’s Foundation.

“What impressed me most about MEND in the very first meeting is they had some demonstrated outcomes,” says St. David’s Foundation CEO Earl Maxwell. “We were two to three years into beginning to fund childhood obesity prevention programs and we were having a hard time finding programs that had demonstrated outcomes.”

He also likes the idea that the YMCA of Austin has been able to grow it and bring it to other YMCAs. MEND is now offered in Hutto, Amarillo, Brownsville and Corpus Christi as well as in cities in Colorado, California and Illinois.

The program is also part of a three-year study by the Centers for Disease Control that is looking at the outcomes of several childhood obesity programs. Deanna Hoelscher, a University of Texas School of Public Health professor, and director of the Michael and Susan Dell Center For Healthy Living, is leading the research into MEND as well as the CATCH program — the Coordinated Approach to Child Health — done through the schools. While there has been some preliminary results, the final study won’t be released until the first the year.

What Hoelscher can tell us is that there is evidence that MEND has helped in decreasing obesity among kids.

MEND’s own research in five countries shows a change of body mass index from 27.1 at the start of the program to 25.7 six months out. The control group who didn’t do the MEND program finished with a body mass index of 27.7 six months out. What’s considered a healthy BMI changes depending on age and gender.

The research also cites lower waist circumference of 77.7 centimeters for MEND participants instead of 82 centimeters in the control group and a lower recovery heart rate of 95 beats per minute instead of 113 beats per minutes in the control group. The MEND participants’ self-esteem score measured on a 0 to 4 scale was 3.2 instead of 2.9 in the control group.

Quintella says she also has noticed a change in confidence in the more than 1,000 families that have been served by MEND through the YMCA of Austin. At the MEND reunion last fall, families were continuing to do well. “One of the things we heard was my kid is a completely different person now.” Kids found something that they were good at and had more confidence. They no longer feared being noticed.

“We do have stories of a kid who had never picked up a football and is now on a JV team in high school,” she says.

MEND Program

To see if you qualify and to find out about the fall session, call the YMCA office, 512-236-9622.

Author: Nicole Villalpando

Nicole Villalpando writes about families in the Raising Austin blog and the Raising Austin column on Saturdays. She also offers a weekly and monthly family calendar at austin360.com/raisingaustin. She tweets at @raisingaustin.

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