New Program Exercises Taste Buds and Muscles to Keep Kids Healthy

A new program geared toward fighting childhood obesity and helping kids develop an active lifestyle and healthful diet is taking root in preschools and Head Start classrooms across the state. Happy Feet and Healthy Eats is a new program that enlists teachers and parents to help young children formulate healthful habits.

The program taps into the imaginative mind of preschool-aged children by introducing new foods through interaction with Food Friends, a program that includes food characters such as Ollie Orange, Gerty Gouda and Rudy D. Radish. Happy Feet, Healthy Eats also sparks fun-filled physical movement such as an imaginary adventure trek through a jungle and activities dubbed wacky walking and grinnastics.

Happy Feet and Healthy Eats, at work in several Head Start and preschool classrooms in Colorado beginning this spring, is a collaborative project between Colorado Nutrition Network, which is a Colorado State University run collaboration among Head Start centers, preschools and FunFit, Inc., a private company that promotes fun exercise programs for preschool-aged students. The program will expand to more classrooms in the next two years. Happy Feet and Healthy Eats provide teachers with training and materials to weave physical activity and nutrition into their classroom and also provides material for parents that help reinforce the lessons at home.

"Happy Feet and Healthy Eats helps children learn to exercise their taste buds and their muscles, both of which are important in maintaining health and avoiding chronic disease," said Jennifer Anderson, director of the Colorado Nutrition Network and a Colorado State Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist. "Research shows that people form their eating habits during childhood. It also shows that adults with a lack of variety in their diets may face related health problems. The benefits of a varied diet and an openness to trying new foods has an impact on physical health. Children who are open to trying new and different foods are more likely to form healthy lifelong eating habits."

Kids with an active lifestyle and healthful diet are less likely to develop health problems, and the lifelong habits that are important to health are formulated in early childhood. But national trends show that children are becoming more sedentary and don’t have a good diet.

Just as eating habits are formed at an early age, so is the habit of enjoying regular physical activity. Scott Liebler, director of FunFit Inc. and the creator of Funsical Fitness, the physical activity component of Happy Feet and Healthy Eats, points to research showing that children develop the majority of fundamental motor skills between the ages of 2 and 10.

"Children who participate, show significant improvement in confidence, strength, balance, endurance and coordination," said Liebler. "Movement also is a great way to help children to manage stress and enhance their capacity for learning. The mind and the body are directly connected: consciously moving the body stimulates the brain. It also helps the body release stress."

Liebler is committed to making physical activity fun, a key concept in helping kids release energy so they can be more focused on mental tasks later. He has children focus on exercises that require mental concentration, such as "face dancing" and "face push-ups" which require the coordinated movement of facial muscles. Once the children smile and release tension and their inhibitions, they learn to enjoy exercise and build confidence.

In addition to funding from the USDA Food Stamp program through the Colorado Department of Human Services, Happy Feet and Healthy Eats is funded by two grants. A two-year, $150,000 grant from the Caring for Colorado Foundation and a three-year, $119,310 grant from the Colorado Trust’s Healthy People 2000 Initiative recently were awarded.