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FitPHX Energy Zones provide free activity, nutrition education to Phoenix youth

Students doing yoga
May 05, 2014

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Councilman Daniel Valenzuela and the city's FitPHX program have partnered with Obesity Solutions, a joint Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University initiative, and Maricopa County Department of Public Health to create active Energy Zones that offer nutrition and fitness education to middle school-aged students.

The pilot for the Energy Zones began in March of this year at three separate locations: Burton Barr Central Library, Harmon Library/Harmon Recreation Center and Palo Verde Library/Maryvale Community Center. The pilot program will conclude on May 13, with plans to offer a new, expanded cycle in the fall.

“Fighting for our kids’ health is one of the most important things we can do,” said Mayor Greg Stanton. “FitPHX Energy Zones is innovative, engaging, exciting and effective.”

“The goal of FitPHX is to boost health and wellness in the Phoenix area,” said Councilman Daniel T. Valenzuela, District 5. “Giving middle school students the tools for a healthy life will pay dividends for all of us for decades to come.”

Energy Zones offers two free weekly sessions for middle school students that cover a wide range of topics, including fitness, nutrition, portion size, body image and stigma. The participants gather to get active, make friends and form healthy habits.

“We are reaching out to middle schools in these wonderful communities,” said Nicole Haas, Obesity Solutions senior coordinator for the FitPHX Energy Zones. “The program provides education on healthy, active lifestyles in a fun, energetic format that the students get to choose and shape.”

The Energy Zones are facilitated by ASU interns who are typically majoring in global health, nutrition or other related fields. There are three interns per site who help plan icebreakers, discussion topics, activities, a snack and a “challenge” for the coming week.

ASU intern Ashley Dunbar described her role in the program as a teacher and mentor for the students. “We provide a safe, caring and learning environment where the students can socialize and grow with peers instead of going home after school where they might otherwise watch television or play video games.”

Dunbar went on to explain the positive impact that she’s having on the kids. “We play a role in teaching the kids how to make healthier nutritional choices. I am delighted when our students come back the next session eager to know what else there is to learn and do.”

“Over the course of the program, we were able to gain the kids’ trust, which helped us to encourage them to be the best version of themselves,” adds another ASU intern, Ashley Abbey. “Between day one to the last few weeks of the program, there’s been a change in these kids: they speak more boldly, don’t fear asking the silly questions and engage more fully.”

Interns assisting with the Energy Zones benefit as much as the participants, as they gain real-life experience and training. Facilitating the Energy Zones program helps the interns to hone their planning, problem-solving and interpersonal skills. The interns meet on campus once a week to debrief and plan for the next week, receiving guidance and feedback from experts at Obesity Solutions.

“This internship experience has been one of the more rewarding experiences I’ve participated in throughout my academic career,” Abbey said. “It has challenged me to call upon my creativity and understand how to present exciting activities in a library setting. I think my future career in public health will benefit from creativity. Thinking outside of the box can manifest fresh, and oftentimes successful, ideas.”

Dunbar also felt that she has learned a tremendous amount through interning with the program. “I have gained leadership skills as well as teamwork skills working with other interns, Arizona State University and the City of Phoenix,” she explained. “Along with that, working for FitPHX and the students has been a great hands-on experience. I’ve been able to apply classroom knowledge, such as nutrition and human anatomy, into a real-world setting. By being involved as a research intern I’ve been given the opportunity to help shape and modify a new after-school health innovation program for teens.”

Along with their teaching and mentoring activities, interns collect data from the students, which ASU researchers can use to determine the effectiveness of the program. Students who choose to participate in the research portion of the program wear activity monitors that tell the ASU scientists how big of an impact the Energy Zones are having on the student’s physical activity behaviors.

“The middle schoolers have been very enthusiastic about wearing the devices and tracking their activity,” said Obesity Solutions associate director Deborah L. Williams. “This has proven to be a wonderful motivational tool that really helps the students understand the health concepts and the value of accurate information.”

The three sites that host the Energy Zones were chosen because the children in those neighborhoods exceed the Maricopa County and national average for obesity and overweight. Additionally, each location is below the national median household income and contains large minority populations. The neighborhoods also have high percentages of children in the program’s target age range.

These Energy Zones are part of the broader FitPHX initiative, which is aimed at making the Phoenix region one of the healthiest in the nation. FitPHX is spearheaded by City of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Councilman Daniel Valenzuela and Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman.

Kathryn Eaton,
Obesity Solutions