Helping Kids Stay Fit

Helping Kids Stay Fit

Interacting with puppets named Miss Grain or Mr. Fat, or pretending to be zoo animals, young children enrolled in a recent study got a true head start on healthy eating and exercise, researchers report.

The study of approximately 400 minority children in 12 Head Start programs in Chicago found those who participated in a 14-week, intensive program aimed at improving eating and exercise habits were better able to grow while keeping obesity at bay than children who didn’t participate in the program.

“We were successful in taking the children off their trajectory toward overweight,” said Melinda R. Stolley, co-author of the study, in the May issue of The Journal of Pediatrics.

While children between the ages of 2 and 5 across all ethnic groups have approximately the same rates of overweight, these statistics change as the children age, so that by the time they are ageds 6 to 10, black children are nearly twice as likely to be overweight as non-Hispanic white children, the authors said.

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And once overweight has set in, the risk of remaining overweight into adulthood is much higher, Stolley added, which is why she and her colleagues were pleased with the outcome of their study.

“We showed that you can indeed intervene at this age to change behavior of children over the long term,” she said.

For the program, called “Hip-Hop to Health Jr.,” researchers had specially trained teachers introduce concepts about healthy eating and aerobic exercise to nearly 200 4-year-olds. The 20-minute lessons were conducted three times a week in the classroom. A “control” group of another 200 4-year-olds received classes focused on dental hygiene, seat belt safety and other issues.

The food component included hand puppets that represented different foods categorized as “Go and Grow” foods, such as Mr. Fruit and Miss Grain, or less-appealing “slow” foods such as Mr. Fat. The children learned which ones gave them energy, and which ones slowed them down.

The exercise component of the program, which Stolley said was particularly popular among the children and teachers alike, included games such as a pretend trip to the zoo, in which the children got to act like different animals.

At the same time, a newsletter was sent home to parents to keep them abreast of what was going on in the classroom. Parents were also given food coupons worth $5 as a reward for helping their children complete homework assignments that further reinforced healthy concepts.

Before the program, immediately afterwards, and then at intervals of one and two years following the completion of the program, researchers calculated the children’s body mass index (BMI). They also collected data on the children’s eating and exercise habits, based on parental reports.

Immediately following the study, Stolley’s team found little difference in the BMIs between those who participated in the Hip-Hop to Health Jr. program and those who were in the control group. However, by the one-year mark, increases in BMI for children in the more active group was minimal, and certainly much smaller than that seen among children in the control group. Differences in BMI between the two groups widened even more by the two-year mark, Stolley said.

“We were pretty encouraged by the results,” she stated, adding that she and her colleagues have since completed a similar study in 12 public schools in Chicago, and are now working to show teachers how to implement the program in their classrooms.

Compliance among the parents was about 50 percent, which Stolley described as very high. She believes the program may even help spur helpful, nutrition-conscious interactions between parents and children.

For example, she described an incident involving a mother and child shopping at the supermarket. The mother reached for a popular brand of whole milk, sold in a red container.

“Her daughter said, ‘No, we should buy purple [1 percent] milk, because there’s too much Mr. Fat in red milk!’” Stolley said.

That kind of interaction impressed Dr. Jennifer Cheng, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University. “This is a very good study because this is a high-risk population for developing obesity,” she said.