PEORIA — Over the 10 years since Dr. Amy Christison started a program to help obese children onto a healthier path she has seen many success stories.

The very first patient who signed up loved video games and hated physical activity and vegetables. Today he has a career in the military.

“The program was the start of a longer journey that helped him be more comfortable with being physically active and eating in a structured manner while reducing added calories,” said Christison, a pediatrician and board certified obesity specialist. “He joined ROTC and later enlisted in the military with more confidence in his fitness. I have pics of him at prom and after boot camp with a very different body and confidence in his ability to meet the challenges of a career in the military.”

Today, Healthy Kids U is going strong. The program is a joint effort between OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois and the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria. It includes both a weight management clinic and a 10-week health and fitness class held in the evening. Kids with a BMI in the 85th percentile or higher are eligible to sign up for the class, which happens from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday nights. For just $20, the whole family can participate.

Formerly held at the RiverPlex, the evening fitness program moved to the YMCA a year ago.

“The Y is a great fit because they provide staff for the exercise component,” said dietician Shelby Miller, who teaches the healthy eating classes.

Another recent change in the program is an added emphasis on family participation. Previously family members were invited to attend classes, but not the evening’s physical activity. Now they are being asked to do both.

“A lot of times when families do it together they seem to be more successful,” said Miller. “It’s more fun to do activities with somebody. Asking your kids to go outside and play and just playing by themselves maybe isn’t as fun as if you are rolling the ball to them to kick, or going for a jog as a family, or biking and walking as a family. So we’re really trying to work towards getting them to be active together as a team.”

Every session begins with a fun physical game run by YMCA staff members and volunteers from UICOMP, like crab walk soccer, or exercise Simon says.

“I think people get scared when they hear the word exercise, because they think it means they are gonna make me run a mile and do lunges and push-ups, and it’s not,” said Miller. “It’s interactive play, play that gets your heart pumping and sweat moving, and it’s just a general good time getting families connected, getting them out from the screens together, doing something good for themselves. It’s just a really good time.”

After an hour of play students settle down to learn about a variety of topics related to healthy living.

“Dr. Christison and our APN teach the behavior topics and I teach the nutrition topics,” said Miller. “Some of the things they touch on are goal setting, self esteem and bullying.”

Overweight children are often teased, which can exacerbate the problem.

“A lot of times we ‘eat’ our feelings. We’re eating not because we are hungry, but because of the way we feel,” said Miller. “If you are an emotional eater, you need to find alternatives, like exercise, reading a book or doing yoga. Find an alternative activity to calm yourself.”

Miller teaches families about the importance of a balanced meal, variety and eating in moderation.

“I’ll do portion sizes and how to read a food label, and we talk about the importance of fruits and vegetables,” she said.

At the end of each class Miller gives participants a recipe relating to the topic she discussed that day. Then she brings out the prepared dish so the class can try it.

“A lot of kids won’t taste new foods for their families at home, so I try to make it fun,” said Miller. “I jokingly tell them that I have one rule in my class, you have to taste it, but I do encourage spitting it out in a polite manner. I tell them that I don’t expect them to like it, but I do expect them to attempt to lick it. It becomes a big joke.”

Kids who try a new food sometimes surprise themselves by liking it.

“And I don’t tell them what they are eating until they have eaten it,” she said. “Sometimes I do sneaky recipes like blackbean brownies.”

To register for the next session, which begins Sept. 17, call 624-9844. To learn more about the program visit www.osfhealthcare.org/childrens/services/healthy-living/weight-management-clinic/.

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.