Professor makes family connection in obesity battle

As alarming as it was, it didn’t come as a surprise to Shauna Burke.

The recent Statistics Canada report showing one third of Canadian children are either overweight or obese is symptomatic of a serious, public health concern, said the Health Sciences professor.

While she had worked previously to address childhood obesity by targeting the children themselves, Burke has honed her attention and efforts to working with parents and caregivers to develop a sustainable approach to dealing with the issue.

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BURKE

“We do need to develop strategies that will be effective. That’s the impetus for the focus on families. By involving families, by changing environments, by targeting that, hopefully, we are also creating long-term changes that will be sustainable for children,” said Burke, who teaches in the School of Health Studies at Western.

In previous years, Burke was the lead researcher for the Children’s Health and Activity Modification Program (CHAMP), an intervention lifestyle approach funded by the Lawson Foundation for obese children at risk for Type 2 diabetes.

The program offered a camp-based format for obese children and their families. Children attended during the week and parents would come on weekends for family-based sessions.

While participation in the program yielded positive outcomes, such as a lower body mass index (BMI), as well as increased muscle-mass and vitality, researchers found two things following two summers of running CHAMP: Some parents wanted increased participation, but their attendance was significantly lower when compared to that of the children.

“Literature supports that a family-based approach is the most effective. With CHAMP, the family piece wasn’t as strong as we would have liked it to be. So we thought, maybe we’re approaching this wrong,” Burke said.

And that’s what kick-started CHAMP Families – an intervention program that will work with obese children by targeting their caregivers.

“I felt from the start a family-based approach was going to be integral. Parents serve as role models for their children; the health behaviours children see are the ones they often model. The environment in which the children live is really crucial in determining and supporting the health of the child,” Burke said.

“With eat-less-move-more programs, it’s not as effective. It’s easy to take a child out of their environment and see behaviour change. That’s not surprising. What’s important is this idea of sustainability when the child goes home,” she said.

“We see a lot of short-term changes. Where we’ve been failing is in creating programs that ensure changes last beyond duration of the program. This is a promising approach.”

The new approach is all about empowering families to make the right choices and supporting one another in maintaining healthy habits, Burke continued.

Grant applications have been filed and Burke is gearing up for two focus groups with children, their families and health professionals to determine what’s important to implement in developing a parent-based program to focus on childhood obesity, targeted for the fall of 2013.

What’s important to note, she said, is these initiatives are welcoming and non-judgmental.

“This type of program isn’t about blame; it’s about empowering families and giving them the tools they need to make healthy choices and serve as positive role models for life. Any family can benefit from this,” Burke said.