Feature

The YMCA and APA are teaming up to bring a common message of healthy living to a potential audience of 21 million YMCA members.

The effort will draw from APA's 500 public education campaign volunteers to conduct workshops on healthy eating and physical activity to families in hopes of chipping away at the obesity epidemic among the nation's children. The first workshop was piloted on April 17 at the Oakland, Calif., YMCA in conjunction with the organization's annual Healthy Kids Day.

"Our goal is having parents leave the first workshop with tools they could put in place the very next day,'' says Jana Martin, PhD, a Long Beach, Calif., practitioner who helped to launch the partnership by connecting YMCA's national staff with APA's Practice Directorate.

The YMCA is a significant partner, given that more than half of all U.S. households are located within three miles of a YMCA center and the organization reaches a diverse audience, including traditionally underserved groups, such as African-Americans and Latinos. APA and YMCA signed a memorandum of understanding outlining the partnership last year. Since then, psychologists in California, Delaware, Kansas, Montana, Washington and Wyoming have cultivated relationships with local YMCAs and participated in health and wellness promotion events.

In addition to offering the workshop on healthy living, psychologists—many of whom have long sought community venues for psychology-themed presentations—are encouraged to connect with their community YMCAs to offer presentations from APA's Mind/Body Health campaign, says Luana Bossolo, assistant executive director for public relations for APA's Practice Directorate.

The Oakland YMCA workshop was 45 minutes long, with time for questions from the participants at the end. The workshop's goal is giving families practical tips for embracing healthier behaviors, such as eating together as a family in sit-down meals, serving portions on smaller plates and drinking water with their meals.

Workshop leaders are also encouraged to discount the ideal of physical perfection and touch on the negative emotional and physical consequences of obesity for children, and acknowledge that changing eating behaviors and becoming more physically active is hard, but possible.

"Eating habits are like other habits," says Martin. "They're hard to undo, but not impossible to undo."

Finding ways to help American families adopt healthier habits together is critical, says Mary Karapetian Alvord, PhD, who helped to develop the first workshop's content.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that 16 percent of children and teens are overweight or obese, triple the number since 1980. Another 15 percent of children are at risk of becoming overweight.

Besides drawing on the insights of practitioners such as Martin and Alvord, workshop content was also reviewed by researchers such as Teri L. Bourdeau, PhD, an expert on childhood obesity at Oklahoma State University, and Heather Kitzman-Ulrich, PhD, of the University of South Carolina. The presentation and handout materials from that first workshop are now being adjusted based on feedback from participants, says Bossolo.

The workshop fits well into the missions of both the APA and YMCA public education campaigns, says Bossolo. The YMCA has long promoted health in "spirit, mind and body" and has increasingly focused efforts on helping people who want to live healthier lives but who often fall short of their goals, says Lynne Vaughan, chief innovation officer for Y-USA, the national resource office for the nation's YMCAs.

"We are excited about the fact that this partnership really takes a community-based focus with local expertise," Vaughan says.

The collaboration also dovetails with the goals of APA's ongoing Mind/Body Health campaign, now in its fifth year. The campaign's mission is to educate the public about the health effects of stress, the connections between psychological and physical health, and the role of psychologists as among the best-trained health practitioners to help people adopt healthier behaviors.