Study: "Join For Me" Program Effectively Treats Childhood Obesity

October 22, 2013
  • Overweight and obese children and teens continued to lose weight and improve their health and quality of life one year after participating in the program, according to newly published data
  • First study to document long-term benefits from a community-based childhood obesity program
  • Outcomes show community-based program can be scaled nationally to meet need for accessible and cost-effective childhood obesity treatment

Research published by the journal Pediatric Obesity (September 2013) demonstrates that overweight and obese children and teens who participated in JOIN for MESM were able to continue losing excess weight and improving their health and quality of life one year after the program had ended.

Additionally, JOIN for ME helped reduce the percentage of children who met criteria for "obesity" or "extreme obesity." The program also enabled parents of participating children to achieve small, statistically significant weight reductions.

JOIN for ME is a community-based, pediatric-obesity lifestyle-intervention program developed by UnitedHealth Group's UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform & Modernization. The study was conducted in 2012 with the YMCA of the USA and the YMCA of Greater Providence, R.I.

JOIN for ME engages overweight and obese kids ages six to 17, along with their parents, in a series of evidence-based learning sessions to achieve healthier weights through balanced food choices, increased physical activity and tracking.

"We developed JOIN for ME to address the need for a cost-effective, scalable and successful childhood obesity intervention that can be delivered to a much larger group of families than traditional, hospital-based treatment interventions that cost several thousand dollars per patient," said Deneen Vojta, M.D., a physician executive at UnitedHealth Group and one of the study's principal investigators. "This study is the first to document long-term outcomes in a community-based program developed to help kids reduce excess weight, and we are pleased that the results show a statistically significant improvement in weight outcomes among participants."

"JOIN for ME helps parents connect with their kids to help them live a healthier lifestyle," said Donna Cabral, whose family participated in the program. "It provides parents with the tools to help interact with our kids, it gives us a support group, and it gives us rewards at the end. It taught us to not give up, and that we could achieve our goals."

To view a video about the JOIN for ME program, click here.

Study Results

Obese and overweight status is measured using age- and gender-specific Body Mass Index (BMI) percentiles, which are calculated using a child's weight and height. Being overweight is defined as a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and lower than the 95th percentile.i Obesity is defined as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile.ii More than 90 percent of the children who participated in JOIN for ME were obese, and almost half were at or above the 99th percentile.

One year following completion of the JOIN for ME program, 70 percent of the original 155 program participants maintained, on average, a 3 percent reduction in excess weight. In addition, the percentage of youth participants above the 95th and 99th percentiles at the end of the program decreased one year later.

The study also revealed that children and parents reported improvements in their health and quality of life, and that the participants who attended a higher number of face-to-face group sessions experienced greater weight loss. Parents of participants in the study also experienced small, but statistically significant, reductions in weight.

"The one-year follow-up study shows that participants were able to retain their weight reduction following completion of the JOIN for ME program," said Elissa Jelalian, associate professor of Psychiatry & Human Behavior and Pediatrics, Brown University. "This is particularly impressive given that the program was less intensive than those commonly examined in research studies and delivered through hospital-based programs. Creating scalable treatment interventions that produce clinically meaningful, longstanding weight loss reduction is an important next step in fighting childhood obesity."

How JOIN for ME Works

JOIN for ME is a 12-month program for children ages six to 17 who are overweight or obese. Children and a parent attend a series of 16 weekly group sessions at local YMCAs in Providence, and Boys & Girls Clubs, schools or other community locations across the country. Participants and a caregiver are introduced to evidence-based tools and strategies, encouraging healthier habits that lead to lifelong healthier weight.

Families work in a group setting that lends ongoing support and encouragement to participants. Sessions are led by a trained facilitator and cover topics such as reducing less healthy foods and drinks, getting and staying active, managing screen time, improving sleep habits, and understanding the link between moods and foods. After 16 sessions, kids and parents are encouraged to attend monthly maintenance sessions for an additional eight months.  

JOIN for ME currently is available at the YMCA of Greater Providence in Rhode Island; Houston, Beaumont, Edinburg, Sugarland and Spring, Texas; Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita, Kan.; New Orleans, La.; and Pensacola, Fla., with plans to expand in Georgia, Minnesota, Tennessee and Wisconsin in 2014. Based on these study results, JOIN for ME is being scaled nationally with community-based partners through UnitedHealth Group's Diabetes Prevention and Control Alliance (DPCA).

Childhood obesity represents a significant financial cost to families, communities, employers and the health care system. A study conducted for one large employer indicated that average per capita health insurance claims costs were as high as $2,907 in 2008 for an obese child and $10,789 for a child with type 2 diabetes, which is even higher than the average claims cost for adults with type 2 diabetes ($8,844). iii

To read the article in Pediatric Obesity, click here.

About UnitedHealth Group
UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) is a diversified health and well-being company dedicated to helping people live healthier lives and making health care work better. With headquarters in Minnetonka, Minn., UnitedHealth Group offers a broad spectrum of products and services through two business platforms: UnitedHealthcare, which provides health care coverage and benefits services; and Optum, which provides information and technology-enabled health services. Through its businesses, UnitedHealth Group serves more than 85 million people worldwide. For more information, visit UnitedHealth Group at


i Barlow SE and the Expert Committee. Expert committee recommendations regarding the prevention, assessment, and treatment of child and adolescent overweight and obesity: summary report. Pediatrics 2007;120 Supplement December 2007:S164—S192.
iii Sepulveda MJ, Tait F, Zimmerman E, Edington D. Impact of childhood obesity on employers. Health Affairs 2010; 29:513-521.

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