By Mallory Bracken
When Tammy Carrico’s son Ethan was 11, he wore baggy sweatshirts to school every day to hide his size. The other students teased him in the hallways and in physical education class when he could not always perform as well as the other children. Ethan was one of thousands of overweight fifth-graders in West Virginia, but three years ago the Carrico family began getting healthy together.
West Virginia University’s CARDIAC project is a chronic disease risk surveillance and intervention plan throughout West Virginia. Each year since the project’s 1998 inception, college students from around the state have weighed and measured more than 135,000 West Virginia schoolchildren in all 55 counties, recording their blood pressure, weight and height. Since the beginning of the research, approximately two in four 11-year-olds in West Virginia have been overweight or obese each year with little variance. Emily Murphy, a West Virginia University Extension Specialist, and contributor to the CARDIAC project, believes the family structure can offer critical support to both children and adults as they try to develop healthy habits. To Murphy, the family is the most powerful force for change because of the role parents play in helping their children make healthy decisions.
“[Parents] often don’t realize how their behaviors are affecting their kids,” she says. “Until [they] become healthy role models for their kids, I think children will continue to make unhealthy choices.”
Tammy Carrico of Morgantown says her family of four always struggled with health. The difficulties mostly surrounded their diet. Whether trying to stay on a budget or bring foods home that her family would like, she did not make it a goal to buy healthy groceries. By the time her oldest son, Ethan, was 11, he was struggling with his weight and self-confidence. His family history of chronic diseases, like high blood pressure, pre-diabetes and heart disease, was also a concern. In 2008, Tammy, who is an accountant at West Virginia University, heard about Camp New You, a program to promote health for young people, in an email to employees from the university. As an 11 year old, Ethan was most attracted to the idea of the field trips and adventure advertised by the camp, but he also looked forward to learning about healthy eating, a desire detailed in a letter he wrote for acceptance to the health-oriented camp.
“One reason I would like to be in Camp New You is that many of my family members have illnesses related to obesity,” his handwritten letter began. He attended the camp in Morgantown during the summer of 2008, and though his individual health was the object, the camp made a big difference for the whole Carrico family.
The program was a family-based intervention that promoted physical activity and healthy eating, and required that campers’ family members come to classes of their own during the two weeks of camp. These family classes were designed to help parents aid their children in pursuit of health. During one of these sessions, Tammy realized that in order for Ethan to become healthier, she would need to be a role model.
“I thought ‘I need to do this too. I need to do it for him, I need to do it for me,’” Tammy says. “To set a good example. They watch everything, they pick up on everything whether you know that they are or not.”
According to Murphy, it is not uncommon for parents to look to other sources for the cause of their unhealthy habits rather than to themselves.
“[They] tend to say, ‘He won’t do this . . . and she will only eat this,’ and then when you look at what the parents are doing and the behaviors they are role-modeling, they themselves are not making healthy choices.”
Rebecca Hedel, of Morgantown remembers her childhood on her family’s farm, where her parents grew their own healthy foods, but cooked them poorly. Despite eating fresh vegetables and meat, the family struggled with chronic diseases. Hedel’s father and grandmother suffer from heart disease, and her grandfather died of a heart attack in 1984. Hedel, mother of Hannah, 13, and Lillian, 10, wanted things to be different with her own family.
Like Hedel, Tammy Carrico made the decision to pursue healthier living and took her son’s experience at Camp New You as an opportunity for her whole family.
After two weeks of living in WVU’s Towers dormitory, physical activities, lessons on eating healthy and field trips, Ethan came away more confident in himself, and he came back to a different environment at home. Following camp, Tammy read through Ethan’s materials and recipes, hoping to keep up with what they both had learned. She joined her local Weight Watchers group, and over the course of 18 months, lost 64 pounds.
Three years after the families’ involvement with Camp New You, they continue to read labels, practice selective grocery shopping and incorporate more exercise into their lives. Ethan is a student athlete, participating in his school’s basketball, football and track teams. As a family, the Carricos play basketball outside their house, take walks, ride bikes and make trips to the Morgantown rail trail. They incorporate new foods into their meals such as spaghetti squash, tilapia and fresh pineapple, and they motivate each other with accountability and a little bit of friendly competition.
Tammy had struggled with her weight since high school. Dieting, dropping pounds and then returning to her former habits, she had lost about sixty pounds several different times. Motivated by concern for her family’s health rather than her appearance, she has kept the weight off for the last four years.
Working full time as an accountant at the West Virginia University President’s Office, Tammy drops off and picks up both of her sons from their various football, basketball, baseball and track practices, completes grocery shopping for the family and prepares their meals. She concedes that it is often difficult to keep up with trying to live and promote a healthy life with so many obligations and so little time, but she has found ways to merge the two. While Ethan attends football practice, for example, instead of watching from the bleachers as she used to, she walks the dirt track that encircles the field.
“People complain that they don’t have time to exercise. Why not get your exercise while you’re watching them?” Tammy says.
The Hedels make it a point to get exercise for the physical activity, the positive mood that it creates and the chance to get outside. Hedel and her daughters walk, run and hike on her parents’ farmland or swim at the WVU recreation center.
“They encourage me when I’m tired and I encourage them when they’re tired,” she says, adding that these occasions are good opportunities to spend time together as a family.
Murphy says that there is a perceived lack of opportunity for physical activity in West Virginia.
“We’re in a society now where we think we have to go to a gym or some paid sports program for our children whereas just playing with your child is just as important and as physically active.” She stresses the importance of parent-child interactions around both physical activity and food and making these things positive experiences, just as Tammy has.
Tammy’s husband, Hugh, who was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 2011, has joined the effort as well. He has taken up exercising in his spare time, keeping tennis shoes with him for when he walks during lunch around the WVU Coliseum, the university’s basketball arena. In February, Hugh called Tammy out of breath to celebrate with her that he had just run up and down the Coliseum stairs during one of his breaks.
Though new, healthier habits are important for Hedel and her family, there are some parts of her family heritage that she wants to preserve.
Hedel wanted to take what she learned from her parents, such as growing her own vegetables and being self-reliant, and go a step further. She remembers her mother making four quarts of green beans, adding half a pound of bacon or a slab of ham, butter, and salt and pepper. Hedel’s recipe involves no more than a little olive or sesame oil.
Hedel’s biggest concern is instilling the right values and habits in her girls.
“I’ve seen people with health problems and I know what the health problems are in our own family and what [my daughters] are susceptible to, so I want to avoid that as much as possible and guide them by setting standards for them to live by for the rest of their lives.”
For both the Carricos and Hedels the transtion to a healthy lifestyle is ongoing. In her 13 years of experience working with families Murphy has noticed that the change from unhealthy living does not happen overnight.
“Sometimes it takes months or years for the lighbulb to come on,” said Murphy.
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