Running To Escape the Obesity Epidemic

Home Brooklyn Life Running To Escape the Obesity Epidemic
Derek Barranco stretches prior to practicing with the I.S. 30 Young Runners team.
Derek Barranco stretches prior to practicing with the I.S. 30 Young Runners team in Bay Ridge. (PHOTO: Ryan Book)

Derek Barranco doesn’t take well to being passed when running. Whenever a teammate approaches from behind, he accelerates, muttering, “You can’t catch me,” under his breath.

No one was passing Derek, two years ago either, but that’s because he was trailing the pack. Liza Lloyd, one of Derek’s coaches at I.S. 30 in Bay Ridge, brings out a school yearbook from 2011. She points to Derek in the team photo; the short, overweight boy in the picture is a stark contrast to the tall, slender 13-year-old running today. The New York Road Runners organization named Derek its “Youth Runner of The Year” following 2012, but earning that award came after overcoming a condition affecting a significant portion of the city’s youth.

Prior to running, Derek was part of an alarming statistic in New York City. According to a 2010 report from the mayor’s office, nearly 21 percent of elementary school children are obese, with 18 percent listed as “overweight,” indicating their Body Mass Indicator score is above the 85th percentile by age. The obesity issue is particularly relevant in Brooklyn, which holds five of the city’s 10 most obese neighborhoods as listed in a 2011 Department of Health survey , including no. 1 Bedford Stuyvesant.

Derek is one of many children who takes part in after-school running programs, such as the New York Road Runners Young Runners. Running has helped Derek maintain a healthy weight at a time when keeping fit has been a problem for youth across the city.

As a young Hispanic male, Derek represents an especially at-risk demographic. According to the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, 26.5 percent of Hispanic children in New York City are obese, and 19.9 percent are overweight. The Department of Health indicates that 29 percent of young Hispanic males are obese.

Much of this reflects the general trend that minority children are more likely to come from low-income households, and low-income households are more likely to produce obese children. Many factors contribute to these trends, including unavailability of healthy food and limited access to healthcare. Laura Paulus, a media relations associate for the young runners’ program, says that encouraging kids to break out of unhealthy habits can be enough to change a lifestyle.

“It’s very empowering to kids to be told ‘you can do it,’” she said. “It’s a mindset that we have to break out of, taking the elevator from two to one.”

Ivette Benitez, now an employee with the Road Runners, began running at age 11 when her mother enrolled Benitez and her sister into a running program. Benitez said that running was an ideal sport for children, especially those coming from low-income households.

“I think it’s the perfect way for kids to keep (the weight) off,” she said. “You don’t need weights or equipment. You just need shoes and the outdoors.”

Benitez’s mother encouraged her to begin running because diabetes was common in her family. Diabetes is one of several weight-related conditions that are prevalent in minority communities. According to the Department of Health, Hispanics are twice more likely to die from diabetes complications than Caucasians. Residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant are four times more likely to die of diabetes complications than Upper East Siders.

Although Type II diabetes is often a hereditary condition, research has indicated that frequent activity can delay the onset of the disease in children. When Derek joined the New York Road Runners Young Runners program in the sixth grade, he weighed 150 pounds. He rose to 161 but then dropped to his current weight of 131 pounds. The weight loss also correlated with a growth spurt of several inches.

Callie Athanasakos has watched Derek develop as a runner while coaching at I.S. 30.

“He was a bit short, a bit overweight, and very slow. But he never gave up, never walked, always finished last,” she said. “We started noticing towards the end of seventh grade. He was a completely different person.”

Members of the I.S. 30 team practice relay handoffs during practice at Leif Ericson Park.
Members of the I.S. 30 team practice relay handoffs during practice at Leif Ericson Park. (PHOTO: Ryan Book)

Athanasakos has been the coach for the Young Runners team at I.S. 30 since its inception. The school is a revamped apartment building, and has no gymnasium. As a result, the running team is the only athletic program at the school. Athanasakos estimates that there are 55 children on the team, approximately 16 percent of the school’s students.

Athanasakos works as a literacy coach at I.S. 30, and has observed a positive impact on Derek’s personality in the classroom as well. She described Derek as shy and quiet when he first joined the team, but said that he now actively takes part in class discussions.

The aerobic benefits of running have benefited Derek and his classmates, but the changes in lifestyle might prove more important. Both Paulus and Athanasokos acknowledged that diet, not exercise, was the major factor behind weight control. Yvette Ramirez, a former Young Runner who hopes to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2015, said that the act of running is only the first step in becoming a better runner.

“Once you start running, you get bombarded with information,” she said. “You ask ‘how do I get faster?’ The body doesn’t run fast if you only drink soda.”

Derek used to eat a lot, and too quickly. Now he not only eats more balanced, but he also considers portions more carefully. He admitted that avoiding fatty foods was the roughest change of habit for him.

“I wish there was some kind of good chocolate ice cream without fat,” he lamented as the team walked back to school from its practice space at Leif Ericson Park. “It’s just never happened yet.”

Despite the hard workouts, Derek, and runners like Benitez and Ramirez, want to keep coming back the next day, perhaps a reflection of just how profound an effect running has had on them. Derek will attend the High School of Telecommunications Arts and Technology in the fall, and he plans on joining the cross-country team, but he’s always looking for the next opportunity to run.

As the team walks back from practice, it pauses at a stoplight. When the light switches to “walk,” Derek’s eyes snap forward.

“Let’s run,” he declares, and sprints for the last 200 meters up to the school doors.

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