Summer fitness program targets obese teens

Grant funding pays for therapist supervision

Every community has a fair population of overweight adolescents who are on the verge of becoming obese adults and may suffer from lifelong health problems. In 1998, Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago decided to help teen-agers with weight problems by partnering with a local acute care hospital to provide a summer teen fitness program.

"We had built a new hospital at Schwab and had a lot of square footage, and Cook County Hospital is a mile away, so we wanted to partner with them in helping children," explains Lisa Thornton, MD, director of pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation for the hospital.

"We asked them if they did anything with obesity, and they said they had a large population of obese children," Thornton adds.

The hospital had been providing group therapy and motivational education to the children. Schwab offered to add a fitness component through the rehab hospital’s exercise department.

Ranging in age from 12 to19, the youths were healthy except for their obesity and related problems such as musculoskeletal disorders, which included back pain, knee pain, and other minor problems.

During the first summer of the program, rehab staff saw 22 youths for three hours, one day a week. The sessions were held in the evening, and the hospital had therapists stay late on those days, receiving compensation time. A psychiatric nurse ran a group therapy session for an hour and then provided an hour of motivational training.

Schwab approached the program holistically, offering healthy snacks. The teens listened to motivational speakers, and they benefited from group cohesion, Thornton says. "I think there is something powerful about a group of people who get together and try to work through a problem or similar issue," she explains.

Such group experiences also can help improve self-image. "My first hope is that their self-esteem is heightened, and they feel good about who they are," she says. "It might help them to learn that they’re not just an eating machine, and eventually the weight will come off in a healthy manner."

The third component of the program was an hour of fitness training provided by a physical therapist. The fitness program included funk aerobics with music geared toward teens, hydrotherapy and water aerobics in the rehab hospital’s pool, and basketball on the hospital’s rooftop basketball court. The therapist also gave the youths tips on how they could include more exercise in their daily lives, such as by taking staircases instead of elevators.

"That first year, every single person but one lost weight by the end of the summer," Thornton says. "So we wanted to repeat it in the summer of 1999, but we had no funding."

Because the children came from families with limited financial resources, the two hospitals payed the costs in 1998. The second year, the program received a $15,000 grant from the Maternal and Child Health Coalition of Chicago. When the 1999 summer program ended, Schwab staff continued to hold monthly meetings with the teen-agers, motivating them to continue staying fit. The facility will seek a second grant for 2000.

"We wanted to plug them in with community agencies like the YWCA or Boys and Girls Clubs so they could continue with their fitness program, but I don’t think that happened with any of them," Thornton says.

The youths continued to maintain the weight loss, she adds.

Need More Information?

Lisa Thornton, MD, Director of Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation, Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, 1401 South California Ave., Chicago, IL 60608. Phone: (773) 522-2010, ext. 5092.