Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center will lead a three-year effort to fight obesity among school-age children in Kernersville by encouraging healthier eating and more active lifestyles.
The project will be funded with a $450,000 grant from the N.C. Health and Wellness Trust Fund Commission. If it is successful, organizers hope it can be expanded to other children in Forsyth County.
In addition to fighting obesity, the grant could help define a relationship between students’ nutrition and fitness and their academic performance, said Ann Lambros, Ph.D., director of Wake Forest’s Center of Excellence in Research, Teaching and Learning.
“We’d like to build on anecdotal evidence that schools have reported and design rigorous research to define whether physical activity and nutritional choices have an impact on academic performance,” said Lambros, principal grant investigator. The three-year grant will fund “Commit to Be Fit,” a joint project involving the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, the Kernersville YMCA and First Christian Church of Kernersville.
The voluntary program will encourage school-age children to pledge to be more active and to eat healthier foods. Information about healthy food choices will be provided to children and parents, and age-specific activities will be offered. The program’s ultimate success, however, will depend on the motivation of each participant.
“For example, children who sign the pledge will receive a pedometer,” Lambros said. “One of the things they would be doing in their commitment is to monitor their physical activity with the pedometer.” When this approach was tried in other areas, she said, children actually spent more time walking and running so they could have more miles to record when their pedometers were checked.
The grant funds become available Jan. 1. In the meantime, Lambros and planners including Curt Rathburn of the school system, John Coulter of the Kernersville YMCA, and Allen Branch of the Family Life Center at First Christian Church in Kernersville will finalize details of the program. Activities are expected to start before the school year ends.
Lambros said the strength of the project lies in the capacity that each of the partners brings to the table. “By combining partners who focus on education, recreation and faith initiatives, we will be able to reach a wider range of children,” she said.
The first step will be establishing baseline measures for each participant: body-mass index, which uses weight and height to calculate whether a person is overweight or obese; resting pulse rate, used to gauge fitness; and the amount of daily physical activity.
“With school, we can quickly account for six or seven hours of the day,” Lambros said. “When they report watching TV four hours a day and three hours on the computer, that all but eliminates other kinds of activity. What we expect to find is that children are spending less than 10 percent of their waking hours in physical activity.”
Childhood and adolescent obesity are growing at an epidemic rate. The situation affects males and females alike and cuts across race, ethnicity and age. According to the Health and Wellness Commission, one in eight North Carolina children ages 2 to 4 is overweight; one in five ages 5 to 11; and one in four ages 12 to 18. Between 1995 and 2000 there was a 40 percent increase in the prevalence of overweight children ages 5 to 11.
“Obesity is poised to replace tobacco use as the number one cause of preventable disease in North Carolina,” said the commission chairwoman, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Lambros said “Commit to Be Fit” is starting small in Kernersville so that it can “really have an impact” before being expanded to a larger community.
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
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