A grant from Herman Miller Cares is enabling three members of the Hope College kinesiology faculty to develop a childhood wellness program for families in West Michigan, a local solution to the national problem of childhood obesity.

Kyle Morrison, Steven Smith and Mark Northuis, all three of whom focus on childhood wellness in their research, will work with a team of students in creating and running “Foundations for Fitness,” a multidisciplinary program that will provide families with age-appropriate structured exercise and lifestyle education.  The program will begin this fall, running weekly in 10-week sessions that will take place three times per year for the next two years through an award from Herman Miller Cares.

“This program will serve families within the Holland/Zeeland area that need the support to make positive lifestyle changes,” said Morrison, who will direct the program.  “It will also provide several educational opportunities for Hope students desiring to lead lives of service in healthcare fields. It is with many thanks to Herman Miller Cares that we begin this exciting endeavor.”

Morrison noted that about one-third of the nation’s children are considered overweight or obese.  Through “Foundations for Fitness,” which is for children age seven through 12, he’s hoping to start reducing that percentage locally through physical activity, motor skill development, parental support, and education about community resources for healthy living.

About 30 to 35 families will participate in each session, totaling about 100 families per year and 200 across the duration of the grant.  Children and their families are being selected for participation based on recommendations from the children’s pediatric or family physicians, or school nurses.

Each week, the children will participate in activities in dedicated space in the college’s Dow Center.  Designed for pediatric-specific exercise, the room includes unique excergaming equipment such as a multi-player dance game and an Xbox system that requires the user to pedal a bike to keep it powered, as well as more traditional equipment such as age-appropriate elliptical machines.

“One key to getting anyone to exercise is to make the activity age-appropriate and enjoyable,” Morrison said.  “The equipment in the room is designed to support a variety of skill levels and range of interests, so that the children will develop confidence and habits that will help them become more active after the program ends and throughout their lifetime.”

While the children are gathered, the members of their families will also be meeting, learning about ways to enhance wellness and how to make the most of area resources ranging from the healthy-eating options available through the farmer’s market to the opportunities for physical activity offered by local recreation programs.  Families who attend at least eight of the 10 sessions will also receive a four-month membership to the Dow Center, which provides activity options including swimming, basketball, running, racquetball and exercise equipment.

Hope students from several departments with pre-health care emphasis will be involved in a variety of ways, from helping assess the children’s wellness before and after the program, to working with the children during the 10-week sessions, to serving as one-on-one mentors across the four months that the families have Dow memberships.  “When the children and families have somebody that’s knowledgeable, passionate and cares about them, they’re going to go a lot further than if they were going it alone or with very intermittent help,” Morrison said.

Faculty from various disciplines, including nursing, social work, psychology, Spanish, art and dance, will also collaborate to provide support to the program.

Morrison is an assistant professor of kinesiology and assistant men’s and women’s cross country coach.  A 2004 Hope graduate, he assisted in the development and operation of a similar program at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital from 2009 until coming back to Hope in the fall of 2012.

As a Hope student, Morrison concentrated on both exercise science and physical education within the college’s department of kinesiology.  His interest in children’s wellness began while he worked on a research project mentored by Northuis and Smith, who have been studying pre-adolescent growth trends in the greater Holland area since 1994 and had piloted an earlier program focused on childhood wellness.

Northuis is a professor of kinesiology and head men’s and women’s cross country coach at Hope, where he has taught since 1988.  He has served as principal investigator for a variety of studies exploring pediatric obesity in West Michigan.

Smith, is a professor of kinesiology and head men’s soccer coach, and has taught at Hope since 1990.  He has researched performance and fitness levels in children for several years, with an interest in encouraging healthy behaviors, and his publications include books featuring activities designed to make exercise enjoyable for children.