Obesity among adults and youth is a growing health care problem at the national and local level and carries with it significant costs, both in terms of dollars and lives. In the United States, one-third of children and twothirds of adults are classified as overweight or obese, and this increasing obesity trend seems likely to continue.
The statistics for Louisiana are particularly alarming. Findings of the Adolescent School Health Program indicated that 41.3 percent of Louisiana youth ages 2-19 years were classified as either overweight or obese. Only 5.9 percent of youth consumed fruit more than four times per day, and only 11.7 percent of youth consumed vegetables more than three times per day. Additionally, only 34 percent of youth met vigorous physical activity guidelines. To reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Louisiana, it is essential that we teach younger children to adopt healthy nutrition and physical activity behaviors prior to the establishment of unhealthy habits.
Childhood obesity rates are of particular concern because children who are overweight or obese are 70 percent more likely to be overweight or obese as an adult. Being overweight or obese substantially increases a person’s risk for the development of nutrition-related chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer, stroke, sleep apnea, hypertension and osteoarthritis. Studies have also shown that being overweight or obese can affect school performance. For example, overweight children in one study had significantly lower math and reading test scores at the beginning of the school year than did their healthyweight peers.
In response to the epidemic increase in childhood obesity, the LSU AgCenter, in partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, launched the Smart Bodies program in March 2005. Smart Bodies provides comprehensive nutrition education with physical activity for elementary school children – kindergarten through fifth grade – which is integrated into core curriculum objectives. The program incorporates classroom activities with hands-on learning to teach children how to build strong bodies and active minds. The foundation’s initial grant was $1.8 million with another $1.25 million awarded through 2015.
Smart Bodies’ Three Main Components
Body Walk. Students explore nine organs of the human body in a 35-foot-by-45-foot, interactive, walk-through exhibit. At each of the stations, children participate in activities focused on the effects that different foods have on each organ. They are given a take-home activity book to share with their families. New this year to the Body Walk is the “Smart Bodies Cafeteria,” in which children pretend to transform into a food.
OrganWise Guys. These 10 characters help children understand physiology and healthy behaviors. Hardy Heart, Madame Muscle, Windy the Lungs and the Kidney Brothers (among others) are manifested as cartoons in books, games, videos, posters and as dolls used in nutrition and healthy living lessons. Participating schools receive a free kit with DVDs, dolls, books, games, puzzles, music CDs, posters and banners.
2 Step in the Classroom. This classroom-based, gradespecific educational tool encourages short bouts of physical activity integrated with academic lessons. Participating schools receive curricular materials and training for each grade level, providing teachers with learning activities that incorporate movement to reinforce academic concepts. Curricular materials in both OrganWise Guys and 2 Step are linked to the Common Core Standards established by the Louisiana Department of Education.
The overall goal of the Smart Bodies Program is to promote lifelong healthy eating patterns and physically active lifestyles to Louisiana’s children and their families. Milestones of the program include reaching 50 schools per year through Smart Bodies and 30,000 children with the Body Walk exhibit per year. Since March 2005, more than 450 elementary schools have implemented the Smart Bodies program, and nearly 400,000 children and adults have experienced the Body Walk.
Local AgCenter extension agents recruit schools for the program and then conduct teacher trainings in the schools selected. Once the teachers have been trained, a school assembly is used to kick off the program and build excitement and enthusiasm. Following the assembly, teachers begin using the 2 Step in the Classroom and OrganWise Guys curricular materials in the classrooms. At some point during the program, the Body Walk exhibit is taken to the school and set up by volunteers either in the gymnasium or cafeteria. After the Body Walk leaves, teachers continue to implement the program in the classroom. Smart Bodies newsletters are distributed to parents and teachers to emphasize physical activity and healthy eating.
Adding to the incentive to implement the program was a federal mandate, effective in 2004, that required schools to have a wellness policy in place by 2006 to receive federal funds. In addition, the Louisiana Legislature passed a law (Act No. 734) that requires children in grades K-6 to get at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. The 2 Step in the Classroom has also been a selling point because it provides the opportunity for students to be physically active during the school day without taking away from their academic learning time.
National Recognition and Awards
Smart Bodies was accepted by the National 4-H Headquarters as a Program of Distinction for Healthy Living in 2008 and again in 2012. Programs of Distinction are projects that reflect the high quality of 4-H youth dev el development programs occurring in communities across the United States. In 2009, Smart Bodies was one of four winners in the national Blue Works Awards program, which is designed to advance the mission of Blue Cross and Blue Shield to improve the quality of health care. In 2011, Smart Bodies was featured on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Health Care Innovations Exchange. Lastly, in 2013, Smart Bodies was included in the application that enabled LSU to be named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.
Research and Results
The purpose of the initial research project was to evaluate the effectiveness of Smart Bodies in promoting child wellness and preventing childhood obesity. A two-year investigation was conducted among elementary schools in East Baton Rouge Parish. After schools were clustered, they were pair-matched and then randomly assigned to an intervention or control group. Only fourth- and fifth-grade students with parental consent were included in the research. Heights and weights were measured, and body mass index health reports were generated and mailed home to parents.
Analysis of the research data indicated that students who participated in Smart Bodies significantly increased their knowledge about the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and significantly increased their self-efficacy scores related to fruit and vegetable intake. Body mass index health reports were effective in increasing both school and parent awareness of children’s weight status. One-year follow-up measurements of height and weights showed that the percentage of students considered at risk or overweight remained the same among the Smart Bodies group of students, whereas a slight increase was observed in the control group of students. The Smart Bodies program aims to equip students with the knowledge and intention necessary to adopt positive lifestyle behaviors.
The 2 Step in the Classroom program was assessed in a separate evaluation. Research-grade pedometers were used to assess overall physical activity during implementation of the 2 Step in the Classroom program. Analysis of the data indicated an overall 7 percent increase in steps while participating in the program. Female students benefitted more than male students with a 13 percent increase in steps during the intervention.
The results of both research projects suggest that, when implemented correctly, Smart Bodies is effective in teaching children about the importance of taking care of their bodies. If children learn how to adopt a healthy lifestyle, they will be less likely to experience the consequences associated with obesity later in life.
To find out more about the Smart Bodies program, visit www.smartbodies.org or Facebook https://www.facebook. com/SmartBodiesLA.
Denise Holston-West is an instructor in the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences.
(This article was published in the summer 2013 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)