Movement with Momentum

During the summer 2012 Olympics, a commercial aired that featured an overweight, red-faced, 12-year-old boy, drenched in sweat, shuffling along a country road. It was Nike's newest commercial that replaced its "Just do it" slogan with "Find your greatness."

The commercial stirred controversy: praise for encouraging young people of all sizes to strive for their athletic personal best, and criticism for what some called a "degrading" image of the boy. The ad poignantly placed a spotlight on the epidemic of childhood obesity and illustrates an attitude shift that's part of a larger movement to end it. Like the boy in the ad, it's a movement taking tiny steps on a long road.

"Kudos to Nike. We need to see more of that," says Karen Myrick, assistant professor of nursing, who wrote a chapter on preventing childhood obesity for the upcoming "Encyclopedia of Primary Prevention and Health Promotion."

"We need more advertising, more parental involvement and more school involvement." Myrick was involved in First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign that has added momentum to the movement. Launched in 2010, it aims to reduce childhood obesity to 5 percent.

The solution must involve everyone, from parents and teachers to health and government officials. Members of the Quinnipiac community are already making change: teaching children to read nutrition labels, creating fitness programs that involve families, and working in health care fields to identify weight issues before they cause health concerns, particularly in overweight children.

"Children need to know that there is another way; they are not on a set path," Myrick says. "Society needs to say, 'Hey, it's not destiny. You have choices.'" When it comes to ending childhood obesity, this nation has no choice but to do it now.

A number of factors have caused this global epidemic. Children have become more sedentary, opting to play online instead of outdoors. In the U.S., only 8 percent of elementary schools and 7 percent of middle and high schools have daily physical education. The cost of organized community sports prevents some children from participating.

Processed and fast food, filled with high fructose corn syrup, salt and sugar, is cheaper and more easily available than fresh foods-and in some "food deserts," harder to find. Couple that with the "super-size" deals, and it's a scenario that can tip the scale.

Biological, environmental and genetic factors also play a role. But human genes could not have changed enough in the past few decades to explain the steep incline in obesity, researchers note.

Two recent studies found that antibiotic use in children may change the bacteria found in the gut, leading to weight gain. According to researchers, obesity is most likely caused by a combination of factors in a formula that isn't yet understood. "It's not just genetics, it's not just a lack of activity, it's not just access to more foods with higher calories," Myrick explains. "We have this huge problem that is multifactorial."

To give children the tools to make healthy decisions, Martha Sanders, associate professor of occupational therapy, and students and faculty from Quinnipiac's nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy and physician assistant programs taught Nutrition Detectives and ABC for Fitness to third-graders in Wallingford, Conn., and Hamden. It was part of a 2010 research project. In the Nutrition Detectives program, QU students explained how to read food labels and the third-grade students poured over the fine print on the boxes of cereal and snack bars to find clues marking unhealthy foods, such as long, complicated ingredient lists or the inclusion of hydrogenated vegetable oil or high-fructose corn syrup.

The program was so impressive, school nurses in Hartford asked the students to do the program there. In the ABC for Fitness program, students showed teachers how to incorporate 5- or 10-minute activity bursts between lessons and based on the curriculum, such as moving like an insect after a science lesson.

The children not only retained the nutritional tips after the program ended, but also significantly improved scores on national fitness tests. Even months later, at an activity day held at Quinnipiac to reinforce the concepts, most of 200 children could apply what they had learned, Sanders says. "The cool thing was that the students took this information home to their parents."

Read the full version of this story, which appeared in the Fall 2012 Quinnipiac Magazine.


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