Children can learn to eat better and exercise more at the same time they learn to read and write, a major new study involving nearly 100 elementary schools in four states has shown.
The study, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, demonstrates that moderate changes in the way things are done in school, along with some "fun" homework done with parents, can help children as young as 8 adopt more healthful habits.
The project, conducted over a three-year period at ethnically diverse schools in middle-class and lower-middle-class communities in California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas, encouraged children to eat food lower in fat and to get more vigorous exercise, steering them down a more healthful path than that followed by the majority of American children.
After the three years, the participating children were eating significantly less fat and especially less-saturated fat and were getting considerably more vigorous or moderately vigorous exercise, both in and outside of school, than were children in comparable schools that did not make the same changes.
The program, the Child and Adolescent Trial for Cardiovascular Health, is described in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Participating children, now in junior high school, are being followed to see whether they maintain the changes as they enter adolescence.
The beauty of the program, says Dr. Cheryl L. Perry, the scientist who designed the steps, is its ability to slip into current curriculums with minimal added expense for a school or extra time required of school personnel.
Dr. Perry, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said the materials used had been developed under govern- ment auspices and could be made available to any interested school. Teachers and food service employees need only one or two days of training a year to adopt the program, she said.
The program tried to make the learning experience enjoyable for the children in the study. For example, they were taught the differences among "go" foods, which could be eaten any time; "slow" foods, which should not be overdone, and "whoa" foods, which they should think twice about.
Food service personnel were taught how to reduce the fat content of foods while making them tasty and attractive.
As a result of their lunchroom experience, classroom lessons and food games, and food choice skills practiced with parents, the children cut their fat intake to 30.3 percent of calories from 32.7 percent, whereas little change occurred among children at schools that served as study controls.
Changes were also made in physical education classes to introduce more vigorous activities and minimize the time children spent simply standing around. As a result, the amount of time they spent each day engaged in vigorous physical activity rose to an average of 58.6 minutes vs. 46.5 minutes for children in the control schools.
The changes had no adverse effects on the participating children's growth or development. The project's only disappointment to date has been its failure to produce significant changes in the children's cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
But the researchers said if the new habits were maintained, they could make a major difference in coronary risk decades later.
Pub Date: 3/19/96