Educating a family together to lower heart disease risks

Nov. 29, 2022
Caleb Gaylord and his mother, Christin, were motivated by the UCHealth Healthy Hearts and Mind Family Program to take more walks together as a way to improve their heart health.
Caleb Gaylord and his mother, Christin, were motivated by the UCHealth Healthy Hearts and Mind Family Program to take more walks together as a way to improve their heart health. Photos by Joel Blocker for UCHealth.

Caleb Gaylord, 18, is a new man.

Two years ago, at 5-feet-10, he weighed 250 pounds and had a BMI of 37.

After Caleb participated in UCHealth’s Healthy Hearts and Minds Family Program, his life changed.

He now weighs 150 pounds. In 18 months, he dropped 91 pounds and his blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol levels all improved.

“In previous years, I tried different things–pescetarian, intermitting fasting–it never stuck,” Caleb said. “I came into this program looking to get that change, and it was worth it.

“I understood I wouldn’t learn it all in one day. But everything together helps you achieve your goal.”

Why addressing heart health in childhood matters

One in five children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese, putting them at a higher risk for asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Healthy Hearts and Minds is a free program offered to our non-patients to support UCHealth’s mission of improving lives,” said NaNet Jenkins, manager of research services for the program. “Healthy Hearts and Minds casts a wide net across our communities. The program is available to any family that wants to improve their health or learn how to maintain optimal health habits.”

While most referrals come from those that participate in the Healthy Hearts and Minds school education and screening program, Caleb’s mom, Christin, learned of the program through their family pediatrician. UCHealth created HealthyU, a referral service embedded in Epic, UCHealth’s electronic health record system, to allow providers to more easily refer their patients to lifestyle, community and education programs offered by UCHealth.

From right, Caleb, Christin and Cooper Gaylord all participated in the Healthy Hearts and Minds Family Program as a way to learn better heart health habits.
From left, Caleb, Christin and Cooper Gaylord all participated in the Healthy Hearts and Minds Family Program as a way to learn better heart health habits.

Christin, Caleb and his then 11-year-old brother, Cooper, signed up for the family program.

“Caleb had been trying different things, and Cooper, I was just trying to get anything and everything to educate him on healthy choices and serving sizes — we learned all of that in this program,” Christin said.

What is the Healthy Hearts and Minds Family Program?

The 12-month program is designed to help families improve cardiovascular health and wellness and sustain overall health. There is no cost to families, and family members age 9 and older, including grandparents or other relatives, can participate.

“Educating a family together can not only reduce a child’s risk of heart disease but the entire family’s risk,” said Reggie Cochran-Zaragoza, coordinator for the family program.

Each participant begins the program by receiving a baseline screening. At that time, they’re also set up with their own Fitbit, and they register for other apps used for educational classes.

The families attend a one-and-a-half-hour fun and interactive class for the following six weeks. The program provides free childcare for family members who aren’t old enough to participate. Families also have access to individual or family nutrition, exercise and general wellness counseling from a health care professional throughout the 12 months. Follow-up screenings occur at three, six and 12 months.

Caleb appreciated the tools and tactics he learned, and began paying attention to portion size. He started an exercise routine.

“The easiest is walking,” Caleb said. “It’s a simple thing to go for a walk, listen to music or a podcast and just keep going.”

The Gaylord family often took walks together, and Christin and Caleb made a fun competition out of the number of steps they’d get each day.

For Cooper, Christin said the focus was not necessarily on losing weight but on learning healthy habits and listening to his body, which he could continue to work on through adolescence.

The lessons Caleb learned stuck with him. He is off on his own now, attending his first year at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. His family’s oversight is gone, but Caleb continues to live a healthy lifestyle.

Caleb Gaylord, right, with his brother, Cooper.
Caleb Gaylord, right, with his brother, Cooper.

“I’m getting steps in, as many ways as I can,” he said. “If class lets out 10 minutes early, I take a walk before heading back. And I’m going to the gym more.”

A healthy college diet can be challenging, but Caleb said he finds places where he can choose his ingredients and decide his portion size.

Casting a wide net to reach all students and families

One way families join the family program is through their physician. But with a goal of health equity and equality in Colorado, UCHealth combined two of its programs (Healthy Kids Club and Healthy Hearts) into Healthy Hearts and Minds to streamline efforts and cast a much larger net. The new name acknowledges the connection between mental health and heart health

The family program is just one resource. Healthy Hearts and Minds is a comprehensive program in 120 schools throughout northern Colorado and Colorado Springs that provides an array of programs to address cardiovascular health.

This multi-faceted program begins in first grade, where students are introduced to information about heart health, nutritional habits, physical exercise, stress management and genetics. This education builds and is intentionally offered again to fifth-, seventh- and tenth-graders who can also receive a biometric screening. This personalized knowledge of their heart numbers can empower healthy choices

All elementary students receive the 5210+ challenge in February to encourage healthy activities for 30 days to develop lifelong habits. Fourth- through sixth-grade girls have an opportunity to be part of a run club (Be Strong Be Fit) that aims to build self-esteem and body confidence. From elementary through high school, students learn the science behind why healthy habits matter, empowering them to make healthy lifestyle choices that continue into adulthood.

“Our teams meet these students where they are. We show them why it matters, and we wrap resources around them,” said NaNet Jenkins, manager of research services for the program. “It is the most beautiful thing, because we are talking about the whole person.”

From left, Caleb, Christin and Cooper Gaylord.
From left, Caleb, Christin and Cooper Gaylord.

It’s a free, science-based program. And its research team collects program data to further advance efforts to lessen cardiovascular disease in these communities.

Sixty percent of students participate in the biometric screenings offered as part of the Healthy Hearts and Minds program in fifth grade, middle school and again in high school. UCHealth health professionals review the screenings. If any number is alarming, a medical professional reaches out to parents and offers additional resources, including the family program.

Since its inception in 2014, the family program has served 344 families, 34% of whom are low-income and 26% are Hispanic. As a whole, Jenkins said, Healthy Hearts and Minds significantly impact the community’s overall health. (Read Amelia’s story.)

“Staying connected to our communities allows us to understand needs, to prevent and treat medical concerns proactively and to improve lives,” she said.

“Why should we wait until you show up in the ER at age 45 with a heart attack?” said Julie Morain, the lead registered nurse for the family program. “We know that cardiovascular disease starts in childhood. Why should we wait when we can educate and prevent? We can do better than that and get in front of it.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.