SOCIETY

?Work It Out? fights child obesity

Inner-city neighborhoods in the United States have a reputation for being devoid of healthy food choices. Detroit, Michigan is one of the worst off. The city has one of the US?s highest rates of obesity. According to one study, 70 percent of the city?s population is classified as being overweight or obese.

In 2005, a local woman decided to take a stand ? a particularly flexible, zen stand. ?Horrified? at the extent of the problem in her city, philanthropist and community activist Danialle Karmanos founded Work It Out (DKWIO), a one-hour children?s program that is the only one in the world to offer a combination of yoga and nutrition education. The aim behind the holistic and yoga-based approach, Karmanos says, is to equip youth in her city ?with the tools to make healthy choices.? Since 2005, the program has helped almost 2,000 children.

?Five years ago, I was reading more and more about the epidemic of childhood obesity. One day, I was visiting a nonprofit in Detroit when I witnessed a young mother, maybe 15 or 16 years old, giving her infant Coca-Cola in the bottle. I was horrified but I quickly realized it wasn?t her fault. She didn?t know any better. I was motivated to take action… Within days I surrounded myself with a great group of talented people who were equally committed to making a difference,? Karmanos explained to Athens Plus.

Karmanos thinks the obesity epidemic is brought on by multiple factors, among which are an increase in screen time ? i.e. television and computers ? and the negative impact that has had on playtime; the accessibility of junk food combined with the challenges of buying healthy food in urban areas; and not enough awareness.

Determined to nip unhealthy eating and exercise habits in the bud, Karmanos has Detroit children take part in one-hour sessions that have a preset program. ?We believe children feel safe and thrive when they know what to expect at each session,? she explained. ?While the content will evolve and change, the foundation is the same.? All sessions follow an ?introduction, nutrition, activity, relax and recap? structure.

Yoga plays an important role in DKWIO, largely because the young participants ?have really guided the evolution of the program,? Karmanos continued. ?We gave them a safe environment to do something that allows them to feel good about themselves ? mind, body and spirit.?

Children in the program are integral to sharing the knowledge they pick up with the wider community, Karmanos said. ?They?ve become ambassadors and taken what they?ve learned and experienced back to their families, friends and schools. Because there is no cost and minimal risk, the whole family can practice together. Our kids really enjoy spreading the word.?

The biggest highlight for Karmanos thus far has been seeing the kids thrive in the program, she says. Out of the many times she has witnessed children blossom after being given the space to be active, one case stands out in her mind. ?We had three little girls from a really tough neighborhood, who act really tough. After they completed the program, they did a beautiful demonstration for 100 children at their community center. They were so proud, and it moved us all to tears.? 

Karmanos, who converted to Greek Orthodoxy after marrying her husband, Compuware Corporation chairman and CEO Peter Karmanos Jr, said she takes ?great pride in the culture and history of my husband?s heritage… We even named our sons Socrates and Leonidas.?

Asked about her opinion on how she thinks the childhood obesity problem differs in other countries and cultures, she emphasized that the epidemic of childhood obesity transcends cultural and global barriers. ?While each country may be affected differently, we should all share a similar goal of raising healthy children.? 

?Our formula makes it easy to execute DKWIO in multiple locations without compromising the integrity of the program,? Karmanos continued. She is certain DKWIO can easily be brought to cities around the world, including Athens. The sessions, which have already been run in Raleigh, North Carolina, can ?absolutely? take place in other cities throughout the US and wider world.

After years of working in inner-city US neighborhoods and witnessing problems such as childhood obesity, Karmanos believes that ?awareness of what it means to be healthy? is key for Greece and other countries headed down the same path, in order to re-engage children in physical activity and encourage them to make healthy choices.

What would Karmanos say to someone looking to start a similar program in their own neighborhood ? or just instill healthy habits in their own children? ?Start by making healthy choices,? she said. ?Smaller portions, fresh colorful food ? and increased activity. As you do research and gain a better understanding of what it means to be healthy, you can increase and adjust your commitment to healthy living.?

To find out more, visit www.dkwio.org.