New company Fitwits uses fun to fight childhood obesity
July 7, 2014 11:47 PM
From left, Sebastian Wilburn, 5, Matteo Wilburn, 8, Oona Shaw, 9, and Imogen Shaw, 6, play FitWits.
By Rocio Labrador / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Elvis Pretzley and the Queen of Wheat have signed on to help combat childhood obesity with their advice on soda intake and America‘s Next Top Bottle.
The characters are part of the educational games being sold to parents, schools and pediatricians by Fitwits, a new company spawned by Carnegie Mellon University.
The Fitwits curriculum is the final research product of a five-year collaboration between the CMU School of Design and the UPMC St. Margaret Family Health Center, tested on children in Allegheny County public schools and clinical waiting rooms.
“The best way to get children involved in the conversation is through gaming,” said Alistair Rock, CEO of Fitwits. “They’ll get behind anything they think is fun.”
Through games, flashcards and apps such as a Snack Recipe card game or a Portions Memory exercise, pre-adolescents are prompted to discuss healthy eating and physical activity. Game characters such as Rita Rollup and Berry Smore drive the narrative.
Fitwits also provides tools for parents, educators and physicians to approach food education, including 30-minute training sessions for medical practitioners and a 20-page handbook for teachers.
“A lot of physicians aren't necessarily trained in nutrition education and might be uncomfortable talking to a family about obesity,” said Kristin Hughes, Fitwits co-founder and CMU professor of information design. “Our tools make it simple and comfortable to have that conversation.”
There are many Pittsburgh organizations devoted to combating childhood obesity through exercise, including the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative in Squirrel Hill, Fit United in Lawrenceville, and Let’s Move Pittsburgh, modeled off Michelle Obama’s national childhood obesity campaign.
Childhood obesity rates, however, continue to rise.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates for children age 6 to 11 have doubled since 1980, and tripled for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19. In Allegheny County alone, more than 15 percent of children have a body mass index of 30 or over, which is considered obese.
“Despite a lot of the activities going on, obesity rates have not really changed much in the last five to seven years,” said Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Fitwits emphasizes nutritional understanding over physical activity, and maintains that the very solicitation of a child’s opinion is key to a program’s success.
“The games empower children to make their own decisions about food,” explains Ms. Hughes. “When they absorb this information, they can spread it to their peers and family. And if we can establish healthy habits early, we stand a chance.”
Fitwits plans to allocate resources to other Pittsburgh organizations devoted to decreasing obesity rates, providing donations to furthering each organization’s cause.
“Childhood obesity is a big nut to crack,” said Mr. Rock. “Every partner helps.”
To purchase the Fitwits curriculum or add to the $1 million investment pool, visit www.fitwits.org.
Rocio Labrador: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1370.
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