Smart Bodies: An Educational Campaign to Make Louisiana Children More Active, Healthier

Linda Benedict, Michael Zanovec, Holston, Denise  |  3/3/2007 12:29:27 AM

Denise H. Holston, Michael T. Zanovec and Ellen P. Murphy

Obesity is a growing health care problem in Louisiana and carries with it significant costs, both in dollars and quality of life. Nationwide, Louisiana ranks fourth in adult obesity rates at 27 percent.

Childhood obesity rates (6-11 years of age) also are on the increase nationwide. Very little published data on the childhood obesity rates in Louisiana exist. According to an unpublished study in New Orleans, data from four schools suggested that the percentage of children with body mass index (BMI) above the 95th percentile, indicating overweight, averaged 31 percent and was as high as 41 percent among 6-year-olds.

Studies have shown that being overweight or obese can affect school performance. For example, in one study overweight children had significantly lower math and reading test scores at the beginning of the school year than did their healthy-weight peers. These differences persisted into first grade.

In response to the epidemic increase in childhood obesity, the LSU AgCenter, in partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, launched Smart Bodies in March 2005. Smart Bodies is a comprehensive nutrition education and physical activity program 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. Smart Bodies consists of three components: Body Walk, OrganWise Guys and Take 10!

The goal of Smart Bodies is to reach 50 elementary schools each year for five years (2005-2009). In 2005, 64 elementary schools and 25 public events in 26 parishes received the Body Walk, and 56 elementary schools received the entire Smart Bodies program. During this time, 31,348 children experienced the Body Walk.

In 2006, the numbers were 101 elementary schools in 32 parishes implementing the Smart Bodies program. By the end of 2006, there were 37,000 children who had experienced the Body Walk. The total number of children for 2005 and 2006 reached with the program was 68,348.

School Recruitment
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 Take 10! 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 sent home to parents to emphasize physical activity and healthy eating.

Because of the popularity of the program, there is a waiting list of schools who want to implement the program. The LSU AgCenter is hopeful new moneys will allow the program to continue beyond 2009.

Adding to the incentive to implement the program is a new federal mandate, effective in 2006, that requires school to have a wellness policy 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 Take 10! has 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.

$1.8 Million Grant
The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation provides the greatest share of funding for this program with a $1.8 million grant. In addition, the Pennington Family Foundation has donated $25,000, Wellness Inc. has paid for 35 Healthy School Kits worth $40,000, and the LSU AgCenter’s Family Nutrition Program (FNP) provided 50 kits in 2005 worth about $64,000.

Although each of the three components of Smart Bodies has been tested and evaluated separately in other states, the effectiveness of the three components together had not been tested. Therefore, included in the five-year grant is a two-year investigation of the Smart Bodies program. The purpose of the research project is to evaluate the effectiveness of Smart Bodies in promoting child wellness and preventing childhood obesity.

The primary objectives of the Smart Bodies program are to increase students’ knowledge and consumption of fruits and vegetables, to increase students’ knowledge and willingness to participate in physical activity, and to decrease the number of students in the at-risk of overweight or overweight categories.

Research Shows Change
To assess program impact, researchers conducted studies at 18 schools, nine that received Smart Bodies and nine that did not. Additionally, a sub sample of 86 students from four of the schools in the study wore activity monitors on their wrists for seven days before and after the program. These monitors quantify any change in motion or acceleration in all directions. The monitors are waterproof so the students wore them all day, even during showering and sleep.

Heights and weights were measured, and Body Mass Index health reports were generated and given to the school principals and also mailed home to parents. Analysis of the research data indicated that:
  • Students who participated in Smart Bodies were twice as willing to taste fruits and vegetables served at school when compared to students that did not experience the program.
  • Students who participated in Smart Bodies increased their knowledge of the benefits of physical activity twice as much as students who did not participate in the program.
  • Students were significantly more active during a Take 10! activity than during other times in the day.
  • Body Mass Index health reports were effective in increasing both school and parent awareness of children’s weight status.
The results of the research project 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.

(This article was published in the winter 2007 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
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