NORTH ANDOVER — A program begun locally by a professor at Merrimack College and several area YMCA branches to combat childhood obesity will soon be available to students nationwide.
With a $500,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the “active science” program pioneered by Merrimack’s Department of Health Sciences chairman Kyle McInnis will soon enter a pilot phase at 10 YMCA locations nationally. The program combines exercise and education, offering kids a way to stay healthy while learning about science.
“You wait your whole career for something like this. It’s really unbelievable,” said McInnis.
McInnis’s initiative relies on the physical activity already built into after-school programs like those run out of the Merrimack Valley YMCA.
Students can participate in traditional sports, or they can choose games that keep them moving, but are not necessarily designed for athletes. McInnis said a key aspect of the program is not to alienate children who are not interested in sports, but to offer them options. When they’re done running around, they go to work analyzing the results of their exercise. McInnis calls the strategy “stealth learning.”
“The idea is really to engage them using a combination of physical activity, problem-solving and technology. Hopefully, they have fun, and they might not even realize they are learning, but it shows when we test them later on,” McInnis said.
While the children exercise, they wear a piece of technology to monitor their physical activities. Currently the children use pedometers, but McInnis said he is experimenting with a more versatile, waterproof device that would let kids see how many calories they burn while swimming and doing other kinds of exercise.
While McInnis said childhood obesity is a national epidemic, he said it is more pronounced in some Merrimack Valley communities than in other parts of the country.