A local youth soccer program is taking a unique and holistic approach to improving the health of its players and their families.

Coastal Outreach Soccer launched this year a pilot version of a health and nutrition program for its players that tracks their health in numerous ways and aims to educate them about living a healthy and productive life.

The program is a collaboration between numerous health care specialists and offers an all-encompassing approach to improving the health and wellness of COS players.

“Our goal is to do this over several years, so that we can start to see if there’s a pattern,” said Shawn Williams, COS founder and director. “This is a preventative program.”

It also benefits the children’s entire families, he said.

The program is currently serving around 35 students and is funded through grants.

Its focus includes improving the players’ nutrition, tracking their stress and sleep patterns, analyzing their physical health and performance on the field and educating them about how these components all come together to impact each individual’s overall success.

“The program is trying to incorporate all daily needs for the children and provide for those, which include education and include minimizing stress and maximizing a healthy mind and body to do the best that they can do,” said Jesse DeNello, a longtime COS supporter whose expertise is in exercise science.

DeNello is studying the players’ energy levels using wearable devices that monitor heart rate, body temperature, breathing rate and other exercise variables.

The players also wear instruments on their shoes that track how far they move, how many steps they take and how fast they go.

“There’s various things that the coaches use to gather that information, so that we can make a decision on how the game is affecting the players and therefore how the players are affecting the game while they’re playing,” DeNello said. “But we also monitor other health variables such as resting heart rates and resting blood pressure, so we also know that the players are healthy and are able to function normally.”

Dr. Jarrod Reynolds, a pediatrician working in Charleston, grew up in public housing in Brunswick and has worked with Williams for many years to improve the lives of the community’s youth.

He’s assisting now with the development of exercise protocols that focus on all aspects of health for the players, including physical, mental and nutritional health. He’s also monitoring their stress hormones to determine how stress may be affecting them academically, personally and athletically.

Reynolds was raised in a single parent household, and his mother was often sick while he was growing up.

“With her going in and out of the hospital, it kind of geared me towards medicine to try to assist with improving the quality of life for individuals,” he said.

He saw firsthand the difference proper nutrition can make for a growing child.

“Nutrition is important,” he said. “You have kids who may have been like me, the only meal you really got throughout the day was your lunch meal, and of course some dinner but it was meager. It was what your family could afford.”

The students will also go through sleep evaluations, and in January they will begin wearing Fitbits that will monitor their resting heart rates, sleep patterns and other non-soccer activities.

Dr. Danielle Shelton, who founded the nonprofit Clean Your Plate, is providing weekly produce for the students and their families along with nutritional education and culinary demonstrations that are intended to support healthy eating at home.

One week’s bag of food included snow peas, broccoli, onions, bell peppers, bean sprouts, baby corn and mushrooms.

During a recent cooking demonstration, the students learned about the mediterranean diet and practiced making stir fry.

“They also get the science behind why what they’re eating is healthy, why olive oil is good for you versus maybe vegetable or peanut oil, and how to make things taste good,” Shelton said.

This part of the program also addresses food insecurity concerns for some of the families who may not have the financial means or access to purchase fresh food on a regular basis.

Considering food as medicine is an effective way of improving health for all ages in what is often a more cost effective approach.

Food insecurity is also proven to have significant impact on students’ performance in school, Shelton said, and children who grow up food insecure have higher rates of ADHD and other issues.

“If you intervene now, they have the chance to avoid diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease,” she said. “They have the ability to do better in school. You also have the ability to affect their entire family — their brothers, their sisters, their parents, in kind of a really family-oriented approach.”

A registered dietician is also working with the program to ensure that the students have better access to the food they need to improve their performance in school, on the field and in other areas of their lives.

The Medical College of Georgia has also provided feedback and guidance on the entire program, Williams said.

Clean Your Plate will host a fundraiser Dec. 2 that will support the COS health and nutrition program. To learn more about the event, visit cleanyourplaterx.org.

The goal is to grow the program’s reach through increased funding so that more students can benefit.

“The idea is not just to help the participants while they’re on the soccer field, but also in their daily lives in providing them with healthy alternatives and healthy outcomes,” DeNello said.

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