$2.2 million grant to study childhood obesity

In response to a worrisome rise in childhood obesity, Florida school districts have begun to monitor student growth development every year, but there is little research available to determine if the effort is having an effect.

Now, with a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and with the cooperation of Leon County Schools, a Florida State University College of Medicine researcher will explore the impact of school-based screening on student fitness and parent behavior.

In the past 30 years, according to several studies, childhood obesity has doubled for preschoolers and adolescents and tripled for those ages 6 to 11. High obesity rates are particularly common in ethnic-minority children. An obese child often becomes an obese adult, and obesity opens the door to many health problems.

Among them is type 2 diabetes, previously considered a disease of older overweight adults but now increasingly prevalent among children. At current U.S. rates, a 2003 study indicates, 33 percent of boys and 39 percent of girls born in 2000 are expected to develop it in their lifetime.

“Type 2 diabetes is totally preventable,” Johnson said. “It’s just terrible to have kids with type 2 diabetes. It’s simply unacceptable.”

The primary aim is to study the impact of BMI (body mass index) screenings. BMI, calculated from weight and height measurements, is a reliable indicator of whether children are overweight. Each school offers three wellness programs: a free after-school exercise program for children sponsored by Capital Health Plan; expanded health assessments sponsored by the FSU College of Medicine using funds generated by Dance Marathon on the FSU campus; and a wellness Web site that promotes healthy eating and activity. Researchers will track the children to document how much their health changes and how much their parents take advantage of the wellness programs.

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“Data suggest overweight children often show improvement in fitness during the school year if they participate in physical education or other types of physical activity programs. However, they often gain the weight back in the summer,” Johnson said. “We’ll be able to track whether this phenomenon really happens.”

“If you’re overweight as a child, you’re more likely to be overweight as an adult,” Johnson said. “If you’re an overweight kindergartner and we can get your weight down, you’re far less likely to be obese as an adult.”

Johnson recently was chosen to receive a Distinguished Research Professor Award from The Florida State University. It honors outstanding research among full professors who have attained national and international visibility. She previously held that distinction at the University of Florida and is the first from the young FSU College of Medicine research program to be selected for the honor.

Source: Florida State University, USA

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