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After-School Program Teaches Youth to Eat Well and Pump Iron

BELEN-Valencia County tweens can learn to build their muscles and refuel with healthy foods in a free, six-week after school program that features weight lifting and nutrition education at the Belen Community Center.



Fitness instructor James Butler teaches Jerrod Montgomery, 7, to lift weights as Jerrod's brothers--Jonathan, 10, and Justin, 12 (right)--look on. The fitness class is part of a 4-H after-school program to teach Valencia County youth about nutrition and exercise. (09/25/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Justin Montgomery, 12, said he plans to exercise a lot more and eat better after participating in the program, which included sessions with a professional fitness trainer.

"We learned about the muscles in your body, like the biceps and triceps," said Montgomery, who participated from Aug. 18 to Sept. 25 with his two brothers: Jonathan, 10, and Jerrod, 7. "The instructor showed us how to work on those muscles in the gym. After the class ends, I think I'll keep doing it. I really like it."

The class, organized by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, also taught participants about the food guide pyramid and how to make healthy snacks and meals.

"We made pizza out of English muffins and milkshakes with no sugar, just milk, water, ice and vanilla," said Bryan Bucknam, 11. "The snacks were great, and they're good for you."

James Butler, a trainer from Main Street Muscle and Fitness in Los Lunas, said the class provided a holistic approach to teaching healthy living to kids.

"They need to learn the importance of both a balanced diet and exercise," Butler said. "They're learning to eat well and to avoid a sedentary lifestyle."

The classes, held four times per week from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., included nutrition lessons on Mondays and Wednesdays and fitness training on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

"In the fitness classes, I try to make them more familiar with their bodies by teaching about the muscle groups," Butler said. "We spend 20 minutes talking about the different parts of the body and things like heart disease. The remaining time we work out in the weight room."

As a result, most of the kids know what the important muscle groups are and how to keep them toned, Butler said. "They can all tell you that the number one killer of Americans is coronary heart disease and that diet and exercise will help them avoid that," he said. "For long-term health, it's important they know more about their bodies than just 'this is my arm and this is my leg.'"

Claudia Vargas, a nutrition educator with the Valencia County Extension office, used games and activities to teach the kids about healthy foods.

"We played food pyramid bingo, and we played a trivia game where the students divided into groups to ask each other about fruits and vegetables, like how many red-colored fruits they could name," Vargas said. "We made lots of healthy snacks in class and encouraged them to try it on their own at home."

Montgomery said he learned as much about nutrition as he did about fitness. "We learned, like, how not to get heart disease by eating lots of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables," he said. "You have to eat good foods and exercise to stay strong."

Extension organized the program to promote long-lasting behavioral changes among youth, said Juli Hutchins, Valencia County 4-H agent.

"We want to teach children to value their health through education about positive lifestyles and by building their confidence and self-esteem," Hutchins said. "These kids are exposed to lots of negative influences in their lives, so this can help them rise above destructive behaviors."

The percentage of families living in poverty in Valencia County is 5 percent higher than the national poverty rate, Hutchins said. The county has three times the U.S. rate for drug-related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, and six times the U.S. rate for drug overdoses. Nearly 70 percent of high school students report using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, Hutchins said.

"With the after-school program, we can draw kids into healthy learning activities during their leisure time when they might otherwise be influenced by negative behaviors on the street," she said.

The program allows the City of Belen Community Center and Extension to cooperate to help youth, said Holly Woelber, Extension Support Council president.

"Lots of kids hang out at the recreation center after school, so this is a fabulous opportunity to use Extension nutrition and 4-H programs to offer something structured and meaningful for them," Woelber said.

Clarissa Montgomery, Justin's mother, agreed. "It helps them learn to take care of themselves," she said. "Lots of parents aren't home a lot, and even when they are, many don't know how to teach their kids about nutrition and fitness. This is a great opportunity for the children."

United Way of Central New Mexico provided $4,700 to continue the after-school classes during the 2003-2004 school year. The next class begins Oct. 13 for children 10 to 13 and will be limited to 10 participants.

To register, call Brenda Gurule at (505) 864-2830 or Hutchins at (505) 841-5301.