Maine doctors help kids get fit, stressing healthy choices over dropping pounds

Shane Mayo of Orrington felt a tad nervous when his mom suggested last year that he get active and start eating healthier. The 17-year-old was about 30 pounds overweight and pre-diabetic and with high cholesterol.

But today, Mayo’s 20 pounds lighter and has a healthy body mass index. He runs, bikes, and swims for exercise and snacks on apples, bananas, oranges and raisins, though he still treats himself to ice cream and brownies “once in a while.”

“He came home yesterday, did chores, gave me a kiss on the head and went for a run,” his mother, Carol LaBree-Mayo told me last week. “I was like oh my God, is that my son?”

But it was more than just his mother’s nudging that motivated Mayo to get fit. His physician, Dr. Valerie O’Hara of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, suggested he participate in Let’s Go!, a national childhood obesity prevention program championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

A poster on O’Hara’s exam room wall illustrates the program’s “5-2-1-0” message that encourages the following daily health habits:

• 5 or more fruits or vegetables

• 2 hours or fewer of recreational screen time

• 1 hour or more of physical activity

• 0 sugary drinks, more water, and low-fat milk

It’s not exactly a radical approach — plenty of kids already know they should eat their veggies and swap the video game controller for a tennis racket or a basketball. So what clicked for Shane? Small steps and tracking his activity level each week, which made him accountable, along with Dr. O’Hara’s energetic encouragement, LaBree-Mayo said.

“It’s infectious,” she said. “The kids really want to do it.”

Through Let’s Go!, O’Hara works with more than 30 health care sites across northern and eastern Maine, guiding other providers in helping their patients to make healthy choices. For the past three years, the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and MaineHealth have partnered with Let’s Go!, serving more than 320,000 Maine children and their families.

O’Hara, a pediatrician certified by the American Board of Obesity Medicine, urges patients to shift their focus from weight loss to choosing healthy foods and exercise.

“Close to 100 percent of the providers I meet with want to incorporate Let’s Go! into their practice,” O’Hara said in a news release about the program. “It’s a simple yet very strong message about making healthy choices. Our goal of reducing the rates of childhood obesity in Maine and throughout the region starts with each of us being committed to encouraging healthy behaviors in all of our patients.”

In Maine, more than 26 percent of school-age children are overweight or obese, according to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. The rate is highest among 5th graders, at 41.3 percent.

Shane Mayo not only lost weight, but has more energy these days, his mom said. Before the program, Mayo, who has special needs, was lethargic and reluctant to get up and move, she said.

He’s also willing to try more foods, like mangoes, and buys water instead of cookies and Pop Tarts in between his classes at Brewer High School, LaBree-Mayo said.

“At dinner he’ll even decide portion sizes for himself,” she said.

Mayo checks back in with O’Hara once a month, eager to let her know how well he’s progressing, his mother said.

His advice for other kids interested in giving Let’s Go! a whirl?

“They should try and see if they like it,” Mayo said.



Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.