Helping families increase their physical and mental fitness

Helping to create fit children and families

Chloe Smith knows the hurt that can come from navigating relationships at school, with the pressures of “fitting in” and feeling acceptance.

“Bullying. Fighting. It made me feel like I wasn’t belong there,” the 12-year-old said. “Like they didn’t want me at that school.”

It’s no secret that children’s mental health is suffering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of 5 U.S. kids experience a mental health disorder in a given year. In Detroit alone, the statistics are troubling.

A recent survey of students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District showed that more than half had experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression, while 23% had seriously considered attempting suicide within the past year.

“The trauma many of our families have gone through is enormous,” said Krista Siddall, director of Operations and Programming for Kids’ Health Connections. “Trauma with other kids. Trauma within the home. We have had kids come in that have been so bullied that they just didn’t want to go on.”

To help support the mental and physical well-being of Detroit children, UnitedHealthcare teamed up with

Kids’ Health Connections, a nonprofit focused on improving care for Medicaid-enrolled children, to create programming that could help tackle unmet needs within the community.

Kids’ Health Connections worked closely with local pediatricians to identify priority areas including:

  • childhood obesity (where Michigan children rank above the national average)
  • uncontrolled asthma and immunization education
  • mental health and well-being

“Those three areas is really what Kids’ Health Connections was founded on,” Krista said. “Out of that was FitKids 360.”

FitKids 360 is an eight-week program that focuses on nutrition, fitness and mental health for 5 to 17 year olds in the 85th percentile for body mass index (BMI) who have a referral from their physician. Thanks to a $140,000 investment from UnitedHealthcare, four FitKids 360 cohorts are being offered free of charge. The grant also allowed for the pilot of two FitFamilies programs, which addresses behavioral health needs and promotes mindfulness training for the whole family regardless of a child’s BMI.

“(FitKids 360) not a weight loss program,” Krista said. “It is something we were looking at changing that long-term trajectory of that family by changing those behaviors little by little, whether it’s in nutrition or fitness or in the mental health self-esteem area.”

In addition to two-hour weekly nutrition education and fitness classes, each participant is paired with a medical student mentor from Wayne State University to focus on connection and mental health.

“We work with the kids on their goal setting,” said Beki Schultz, a FitKids 360 mentor. “We exercise with them. We talk about how their week went. A lot of them might have some anxiety or some sadness, depression that we might identify and find coping mechanisms.”

While the FitKids 360 participants benefit from the relationship, the hands-on training helps support the mentor’s training in the medical field.

“The more we are interacting with the community and seeing the issues that they have had,” Beki said, “we know what to look out for as future physicians.”

Chloe, who has completed both FitKids 360 and FitFamilies with her mother, has already noticed a change.

“When I first came, I felt down about myself and then when I left, I felt stronger, like I could do anything,” she said.

Chloe’s mother Mylicia Taylor added that the program helps them focus on long-term better health. 

“Cooking together, that is something we never did,” Mylicia said. “Healthy eating. Exercise. Just the little, small steps. We get big results out of the small steps.”

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