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Updated 8:30 AM April 16, 2007




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Project Healthy Schools gets an A

For the last three years, the U-M Health System has coordinated a project involving sixth graders in local public schools with a goal to see if fun-filled lessons about eating right and getting exercise can have an effect on health. Now, the first results are in and it's working.

America is facing an epidemic of obesity. Despite numerous studies showing the negative effects of obesity on everything from heart disease and diabetes to possible links with cancer, one in five American children is obese.

"Anything we can do to fight childhood obesity in a culture where it is being fostered in so many ways is critical," says Dr. Kim Eagle, professor of internal medicine at the Medical School. In 2004, Eagle and local organizations in Ann Arbor founded Project Healthy Schools.

Dr. Kimberly Lin recently presented data at the prestigious American College of Cardiology conference showing that program participants had a significant drop in diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Additionally, there was a downward trend in systolic blood pressures and blood glucose levels among the students.

Initially implemented in one middle school, the program was so well received that it has expanded to five others. It has been acknowledged by the Michigan surgeon general, who has recognized all the district middle schools through the Healthy School Environment Recognition Program.

"We've had very positive feedback and we know we're changing some behaviors," says Jean DuRussel-Weston, MFit Community Health Initiatives program administrator and Project Healthy Schools manager.

Lin cites data from a study done using the measurements from 2005-06. The study aimed to describe the prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors in the students and to determine the program's effect on those risk factors.

The researchers found that 40 percent of the 287 students assessed were considered at-risk for at least one of the six major categories, which included body mass index (BMI), systolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and random glucose.

Prior to the intervention, 32 percent of the study participants were overweight and a significant number were identified as at-risk for systolic blood pressure (SBP) and total cholesterol levels.

Of the students at risk, 10 percent were a major concern, such that researchers contacted parents and advised them to seek help from a physician or other provider.

After the program completion, researchers found a downward trend in systolic blood pressures and blood glucose levels—and found that diastolic blood pressures and total cholesterol levels had dropped significantly. Of the students who were at-risk before the program, only 6.2 percent had an elevated SBP after the intervention (17 students, compared to 24) and 5.5 percent had high total cholesterol levels (12 students, compared to 21).

Project Healthy Schools is a 12-week program that incorporates fun, interactive activities with educational information to teach students the basics of proper nutrition and exercise.

The program begins in the fall with a kick-off assembly where U-M student-athletes give motivational messages and do a group dance with the sixth-graders. Initial screenings and surveys measure a student's health, physical activity and eating habits. The voluntary wellness screening includes height, weight, body mass index, blood pressure and a three-minute step test to measure heart rates. In addition, a full cholesterol test and random (non-fasting) glucose test are offered with parental consent.

Over the next few months, students participate in weekly lessons and activities designed to meet the project's five goals: Eat more fruits and vegetables; make better beverage choices and reduce high-sugar items; perform at least 150 minutes of exercise each week; eat less fast food and fatty food; and spend less mindless time in front of the TV and computer.

To help motivate students, a friendly competition takes place between classrooms with monthly incentives and an award at the end of the year for the top team.

Project Healthy Schools also works to make surroundings more health-conscious with changes in cafeteria selections and vending machine options. Communication to parents aims to reinforce behaviors at home.

The project receives funding or support from UMHS, the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, Pfizer, Borders Inc., NuStep, Coca Cola Inc., the Thompson Foundation, Hands On Museum of Ann Arbor, Mott Children's Hospital, the U-M Cardiovascular Center, and private donors such as Randy Friedman, Robert and Ellen Thompson, and Dick and Norma Sarns.

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