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Insurance Carrier Funds Activities to Fight Childhood Obesity

Getting overweight kids outside and active is the focus of UnitedHealthcare's HEROES program.

While much of the emphasis on combating childhood obesity in New Jersey has focused on diet, a major insurance company is promoting increased activity as another way to fight the problem.

UnitedHealthcare's HEROES program awards $1,000 grants to help fund projects that raise kids' awareness about ways to live healthier lives.

Projects funded thus far include improving a bike route around Rutgers University’s five New Brunswick-area campuses; encouraging the use of a newly renovated Camden park; and staging a 20-mile walk in Newark to increase understanding of the issues involved.

The UnitedHealthcare program was launched four years ago.

Insurance companies and public health advocates have increasingly focused on childhood obesity as a growing area of concern in address long-term healthcare problems.

A total of 11 percent of New Jersey high-school age children were classified as obese in 2011, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity has been linked to greater risk of cardiovascular difficulties, diabetes, and other diseases, including bone and joint problems.

“By planning, and then participating in the UnitedHealth HEROES program, these youth are not only giving back to their communities but also positively impacting the lives of everyone around them,” UnitedHealthcare New Jersey CEO Michael McGuire said in a statement.

For example, a group of New Brunswick kids will be working to make improvements to a popular, unofficial bike route that circles through Rutgers’ nearby campuses.

As part of the project, the middle- and high-school-age children will walk the 13-mile route, taking note of improvements that could be made to the path.

“Many of the streets contain potholes and debris,” and lack appropriate street signs, said Charles Brown, who applied for the grant and serves as the project manager of the Rutgers New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Research Center.

Exercise is only one aspect of the project, Brown said. By recommending improvements to the route, the kids may make it easier for novice bicyclists to ride the circuit. In addition, the students will be using community-mapping smartphone applications to map out their recommendations, teaching them skills that they may later use in college or the workforce.

Finally, the project will aim to instill confidence and equip students to take a more active role in their community. Participants will be drawn from children who are being mentored by alumni of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

The Camden HEROES project will focus on using the newly refurbished Northgate Park, according to grant applicant Sharon Kinsey, the Camden County 4-H agent. High-school-age participants in Rowan University’s Upward Bound precollege will lead younger children in monthly physical activities.

“My goal was to have the older youth mentoring the younger youth,” said Kinsey.

The 4-H got involved in the project because “healthy living” is one of the organization’s three goals, along with encouraging active citizenship, and science, engineering, and technology education.

The program is designed to dovetail with other local efforts to increase children’s physical activity level in Camden, where more than 40 percent of children are overweight, including 44 percent of Hispanic children, Kinsey said. The teenage mentors will also be provided with information about a healthy diet that they will share with the younger participants.

“You’ve got quite a few who are at risk” of obesity, Kinsey said. “With this grant, we’re looking to assist with that effort. It’s not just physical activity, it’s having a healthy nutritious diet and really understanding what healthy living means.”

The third grant recipient was the Newark-based Helping Hands Foundation, which will have a youth leadership group design and implement a health education campaign and raise awareness of the need for improved health in the community through a 20-mile walk.

Youth Service America, a national organization that promotes volunteer opportunities for children, cosponsored the grant program. Organization president and CEO Steven A. Culbertson said it encourages participants to actively consider the effects of childhood obesity.

“The program is changing the way communities across the country think about the role of young people,” he said.

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