Alexian issues smartphones to head off diabetes in at-risk adolescents

March 1, 2015


When is a phone more than a phone? When it provides positive reinforcement to help young people improve their fitness and nutrition, periodic social gatherings with a network of new friends and even a little friendly competition.

Through Alexian Fit Pals, a new program offered by Alexian Brothers Health System in Arlington Heights, Ill., 200 children and teens with a predisposition toward diabetes will receive a free smartphone and data plan.

The program formally launched Feb. 9 with the first training of 50 children and adolescents, ages 10 through 17, about use of the smartphones provided by the Verizon Foundation and about a customized app developed by Links Technology Solutions of Schaumburg, Ill. Training of three other groups of 50 was to follow over the next few weeks.

Boy with smartphone
Robert, 13, looks over his new smartphone and instructional materials for the Alexian Fit Pals program during a training session Feb. 9 at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

The app allows the children and teens to set their own nutrition and fitness goals and report back daily about how often they met their personal goals. The goals might be to eat a certain number of fruits and vegetables daily, to eat out only a certain number of days each week, to increase the number of whole-grain foods consumed or to participate in an hour of moderate activity each day.

"It's a pretty simple app," said Kimberly Nowak, outpatient dietician for pediatric and adolescent weight management at Alexian Brothers Health System Pediatric Endocrinology Clinic in Elk Grove Village, Ill. "We want to make sure it will be something they will be comfortable following through with."

The app provides encouragement and tips for meeting the goals set by the program participants and allows them to earn points for achieving those goals. Each participant will have a private username and will be able to check his or her standing on the Alexian Fit Pals leaderboard.

Every six to eight weeks, each group of 50 will meet at a local Y or community center for a social event and fitness activity, such as swimming or a Zumba exercise class. Nowak said Alexian will provide incentives such as pedometers and water bottles. Participants who meet or exceed their goals will get a raffle ticket and the chance to win a basketball, soccer ball or similar prize. At the final meet-up, organizers hope to raffle a big prize, possibly a bike or a Wii Sports package, she said.

Participants in Alexian Fit Pals come from throughout the metropolitan Chicago area and were selected from among patients at the pediatric endocrinology clinic or referred by doctors in the Alexian Brothers Health System, Nowak said.

Emily, 15, learns how to use her new smartphone at the training session.

The program is intended for "kids who are at risk for obesity, which would apply to any child who is not eating healthy or exercising regularly," she added. "The majority of our participants are above the 85th percentile (for BMI) as they are at the greatest risk for diseases associated with being overweight or obese."

The goal of the yearlong program, she said, "is for the kids to learn to take care of their own health by incorporating these healthy changes."

The Verizon Foundation provided a $145,000 grant to launch the program as part of its philanthropic focus on improving childhood health.

Because the Alexian clinic serves a population that is 75 percent Hispanic, most of the Alexian Fit Pals participants are Hispanic. Most are from low-income families.

According to the "National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2014," about 208,000 Americans under age 20 are estimated to have diagnosed diabetes, and many times that number are estimated to have undiagnosed diabetes or prediabetes. Prediabetes is a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but not yet high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes.

The Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says Hispanics are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician and are 50 percent more likely to die from diabetes as non-
Hispanic whites.

The children and teens enrolled in Alexian Fit Pals "are struggling medically and physically, and a lot of them emotionally and financially, so they were an excellent population to reach out to," Nowak said. "It will provide a great incentive for them to make some positive changes in their lives."

Nowak said the Alexian Fit Pals program avoids problems such as transportation issues or time pressures in one-parent families that sometimes kept patients from keeping appointments at the pediatric endocrinology clinic.

"It's a great way to connect more closely because the communication is done directly" with the patients, she said.


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