WVU research finds Healthy Lifestyles Act helps children

New state law targets obesity, mandates changes at schools

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A sweeping West Virginia law requiring schools to increase physical education time for students and restricting access to sugary drinks has received its first systematic look by a research team at West Virginia University.

Reactions are mixed: More than 40 percent of schools lacked the resources to put all of the Healthy Lifestyles Act’s requirements in place, researchers found. At the same time, principals overwhelmingly support the law, saying it has prompted school staffs to commit to more physical activity and promote healthier eating habits among students.

Drew Bradlyn, Ph.D., and Carole Harris, Ph.D. – both professors of Behavioral Medicine & Psychiatry and directors of the Health Research Center at the WVU School of Medicine – presented their findings before an invited audience in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber Tuesday, Feb. 10.

“This has been such an important step forward for the state, and the fact that there is so much support for the act in the schools is really wonderful,” Harris said. “Do we have some deficiencies? Yes. Do we have some areas for improvement? Yes. But it’s a huge step forward.”

To carry out the evaluation, Bradlyn and Harris surveyed school principals, parents, student teachers, school nurses, school superintendents, physical education teachers and healthcare providers.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the work. In addition to WVU, two state offices worked on the project: the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health Office of Healthy Lifestyles and West Virginia Department of Education Office of Healthy Schools.

The act, spearheaded by Gov. Joe Manchin III, was first implemented during the 2006-2007 school year. The WVU evaluation covers the 2007-2008 school year. Bradlyn and Harris are also studying the 2008-2009 school year.

The act requires schools to administer fitness and health-education assessments, to offer a certain number of minutes of physical education each week, and to measure the body mass index (BMI) of children to serve as an indicator of progress.

Bradlyn and Harris said that some parents are aware of the correlation between obesity and heart disease. They also may be aware of higher risks of diabetes in children with weight problems. But many parents are unaware of other heightened health risks such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and asthma, the researchers said.

Their surveys showed that some schools are already making headway in turning the school environment into a more healthful place. Thirty-eight percent of West Virginia counties have adopted policies prohibiting junk food at parties and in after-school programs, for instance. Only 19 percent of counties have set policies prohibiting the use of food as a reward, but new state guidelines in effect this school year will move that number to 100 percent in next year’s evaluation, they said.

Their findings, detailed in a 90-page report released today, include the recommendation that the schools increase physical activity for students. West Virginia should conform to the Institute of Medicine’s guideline, which says students need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity – half of that occurring during the school day.

“In West Virginia, we have many schools with limited facilities, including a few schools where physical education is delivered in hallways. They go outside when they can, but there are many days of inclement weather,” Harris said.

“And the gymnasium is often the cafeteria in some schools,” Bradlyn said. “So physical education classes can’t be taught at lunchtime.”

The researchers also urged that school superintendents and other policymakers use the data that is being collected and allow that data to inform their decisions. 

Many positive changes have occurred, Bradlyn and Harris said. Some schools have added walking trails, and some principals have mobilized their staffs to create programs to improve the food choices on campuses.

“I think they deserve tremendous recognition for their hard work and for improving the fitness and nutritional environment for children,” Harris said. “They have really embraced this.”
“And it was an unfunded mandate,” Bradlyn added. “Anything people were able to accomplish, they were able to do from their own creativity and innovations.”
The evaluation project was part of a $1.5 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The two principal investigators on the grant are:

  • William A. Neal, M.D., professor of pediatric cardiology at the WVU School of Medicine, who in 1998 established the nationally acclaimed CARDIAC (Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities) Project to address the high illness and death rates from cardiovascular disease in West Virginia.
  • Geri Dino, Ph.D., of the Department of Community Medicine at WVU. Dino is director of the Prevention Research Center at WVU. It is one of 33 Prevention Research Centers funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Health-risk assessment data gathered through the CARDIAC Project also helped measure the success of the Healthy Lifestyle initiatives. The CARDIAC Project has a track record of assessing health risks in schoolchildren and providing education and intervention services for families.

To read the report see http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/som/hrc/ecocwv/2816.asp.

For information on the CARDIAC project see http://www.cardiacwv.org/.

For information on the Prevention Research Center see http://prc.hsc.wvu.edu/.


For more information:
Andrea Brunais, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
ab: 2-09-09

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