Iron Kids blends fitness, food and fun to build healthy habitsPublished on Tuesday, June 1, 2021By: Annie Oeth, firstname.lastname@example.orgDanayia Cox and Mackenzie Dixon counted out sit-ups and push-ups to the beat of songs by Taylor Swift and M.C. Hammer. Their goal: beating their numbers from eight weeks ago.The girls are among the first enrolled in Iron Kids, an eight-week program developed as a capstone project by Michaela Kelly, who graduated as an occupational therapist from the School of Health-Related Professions at the University of Mississippi Medical Center last month."Iron Kids has been a huge part of my journey toward graduation,” Kelly said.Mackenzie Dixon of Jackson completes a sit-up challenge with Michaela Kelly. Looking on his her cousin, Aniyah Robinson.Following a curriculum with a different focus each week – strength, endurance and coordination some sessions, nutrition and balance during others – Iron Kids helps children ages 6 to 18 form healthy habits regarding eating and exercise.Each hour-long class at UMMC’s Center for Integrative Health in Ridgeland includes marking progress in exercise abilities, making and enjoying a healthy snack and learning about nutrition and movement.On the last day of the session, Danayia was celebrating her 12th birthday. The group enjoyed her favorite fruit – blueberries – with a dollop of a healthy whipped topping made from almond milk that afternoon.Mackenzie exercises with Danayia, shown in the reflection, during an Iron Kids class.Mackenzie said she’s enjoyed the weekly classes. “I love coming here every week to have fun and to exercise.”“It’s been good,” Danayia said, “and I think everyone should come because it’s fun to work out.”Parents of Iron Kids participants have noticed new healthy habits taking root with their children.“Danayia’s been loving it,” said her mom, Yukonda Buckley of Jackson. “Her eating habits are changing. She’s not eating as many sweets.”Iron Kids members each take home a folder of information. “They study it, too, and listen in class,” Kelly said. “Each week, I ask them questions about what we talked about the prior week, and they remember.”The children were referred to Iron Kids by specialists in Children’s of Mississippi’s pediatric weight management program.Sandridge“We’re so glad to collaborate with them,” said Shanda Sandridge, a nurse practitioner with the program, “and we hope to collaborate more in the future.”Sandridge said she’s seen the benefits of Iron Kids in her patients. “It helps build their self-esteem. A lot of times, children come to us and are not physically active. Through Iron Kids, they learn what they’re capable of doing, and that gives them confidence.”Building healthy habits is a need in Mississippi, where, according to the State Department of Health, nearly one in five high school students is obese, having a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or higher.The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s State of Childhood Obesity report shows 22.3 percent of Mississippi children ages 10 to 17 have obesity. Among adults, the foundation reports an obesity rate of 40.8 percent.Physical therapist Rachel Dear, who started Iron Kids as a five-day summer camp, wants to keep the expanded eight-week program going.Dear“Healthy habits formed in childhood can last a lifetime,” she said. “All of our children in Iron Kids have shown improvements and are having fun.”Each week, Dear checks the strength and endurance of Iron Kids participants and hands out a prize for the highest number of steps on their pedometers.“If they’re learning that it’s fun to be active, then that makes them much more likely to stay active as they grow into adulthood.”Kelly, a Greenville native, hopes to practice in the Delta. “It’s my dream to start a similar program in the Delta because it would help the children there.”As for the cohort in her capstone Iron Kids group, Kelly said, “I really hope this has blessed them as much as they have blessed me.”The next Iron Kids program begins July 20. Non-UMMC providers or parents who would like more information on how to enroll a participant in the program should call (601) 984-1285. UMMC providers that would like to refer to this program should do so through Epic under pediatric obesity-related services.