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Spring/Summer 2012

4-H FANS teaches fitness and nutrition while having fun

By Kim Markesich

In April 2012, the UConn Extension program 4-H FANs (Fitness and Nutrition Clubs) completed a successful five-year program designed to promote health and fitness for Hartford and New Haven youth ages 8 to 12.

The program was funded through the USDA Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) program. The purpose of this ongoing program is to promote physical activity through fitness games, dance, karate, yoga and exergames and to increase awareness of healthy nutrition with food activities and cooking demonstrations. 4-H teen mentors are trained to assist younger students with the program.

“4-H FANs has given me the opportunity to give back to the community in which I live,” says Rineicha Otero, former 4-H member and UConn student intern who works with the program. “It is inspiring to see the healthy changes individuals are making in their life due to
4-H.”

The project has been a collaborative effort between the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Department of Extension (administrative home of 4-H) and Department of Nutritional Sciences (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program) and the Neag School of Education's Department of Kinesiology, as well as partnerships with community agencies and elementary schools. Currently, there are 22 sustained 4-H FANs clubs, with several more planned.

“The clubs will be continuing through various community sites and schools and will be run by trained 4-H volunteers,” says Umekia Taylor, program director and associate educator.

During Week One of the fitness and nutrition intervention, youth are measured for strength, flexibility and endurance. After an eight-week participation in the program, students display significant increases in flexibility and strength and in their overall knowledge of physical fitness and healthy food choices.

In addition to youth club activities, the 4-H FANs Clubs conduct family night exergames. “Parents wanted to be part of the exercise and healthy lifestyle their children were learning about in the 4-H FANs program,” says Wanda Hamilton, 4-H urban program coordinator and 4-H FANs state coordinator. “The establishment of family nights was an unexpected outcome of 4-H FANs, and added to the sustainability of the program—parents and children learning about healthy lifestyles and having fun.”

During monthly family nights, 4-H FANs members and their families meet to prepare for family night exergame Olympics, which use Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Xbox Kinect and Dance Dance Revolution. During the exergame Olympics, families have the opportunity to compete with other schools to win prizes. “In addition to utilizing Wii and Xbox technology programming, we have expanded to include Zumba and salsa interactive demonstrations, for families and members of the community of sustained 4-H FANs sites,” says Hamilton.

A 4-H FAN’s Web site and Facebook page have been established to solidify community integration and communication and provide continued educational links for program participants. The Web site includes nutritional and fitness information for youth and families, as well as recipes, interactive online game sites and informative links. Clubs share activity information and general comments through the Facebook page.

“We plan to continue to interact with participants and maintain these sites,” Taylor explains. “We have just received a five-year AFRI (Agriculture and Food Research Initiative) National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant called Connecticut Fitness and Nutrition Clubs In Motion (CT FANs IM) that will involve fitness and nutrition training in seven at-risk communities within the state. The 4-H Fans program will be a component of this grant. We’re very excited.”

The grant will be a collaborative effort between the Department of Extension 4-H, Family Economics and Resource Management, and Master Gardener programs; the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics; the Department of Nutritional Sciences’ EFNEP program; the Department of Allied Health Sciences; the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of Human Development and Family Studies; and the Neag School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology.


Comments from student participants.

Jeanne Pennella, 4-H teen facilitator, spoke with youth in the New Haven 4-H group. She says, “They were quite excited to share some thoughts about our program.”

When asked what she likes best about the program, Zellinex, a two-year member, said, “We get to wear pedometers and walk all around the school.” Students track their steps and have reached well over 30,000 steps each. When asked what she had learned about the food pyramid, Zellinex responded, “I didn't know one of my favorite foods, pasta, was a healthy grain and that it was a source of energy.” Belonging to club has allowed Zellinex to meet some new friends, and she loved the delicious food samples.

Tiana loves walking with the pedometers, learning about the different food groups and receiving the small food charms at the end of the meeting. Her favorite food samples were strawberries and dip and chips with avocado dip.

Keon enjoys learning the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods and the benefits of making healthy choices.