Grant seeks to keep kids fit

The College of Education (COE) and the College of Public Health’s (COPH) Childhood Obesity Prevention Center has been awarded more than half a million dollars to conduct research addressing the physical inactivity and poor nutrition of children.

The $536,000 grant will combine COE and COPH programs to promote active lifestyles for children.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of obese children has increased from 6.5 percent to 18.8 percent since the mid-1970s. Obesity has become a major health concern in the United States, as it can lead to health issues including hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer and stroke.

“Kids spend more time inside at computer screens and with video games and less time outside,” said Donna Petersen, dean of COPH. “There has been a lot of change in the amount of activity children engage in.”

The Childhood Obesity Prevention Center combines two programs: the COE’s “exergaming” program and the COPH’s “scorecard” program. Both will be used to collect and compare data on the physical activity of children.

“We have compatible projects,” Petersen said. “We are going to try and combine these efforts and test (the COE’s) model coupled with the scorecard program to give us more data.”

The XRKade Research Lab, an interactive fitness research lab located in COE’s Physical Education Building, houses exergaming equipment: The lab consists of different machines that require children to exercise while they play.

Some of the machines include bicycle pedaling games and the popular Dance Dance Revolution video game.

Scorecard grew out of the VERB program, a national media campaign whose goal is to get children to be more active, said Carol Bryant, co-director of the Florida Prevention Research Center.

In the summer program, children aged 9-13 received a card with 24 squares on the back.

Each time they were active for at least one hour or tried out a new “verb,” like swim or skate, they got a square signed off by an adult.

Once their cards were filled, the children received prizes that promoted physical fitness activities, such as a new bike, free entry into a local pool or a membership to the YMCA.

The Childhood Obesity Prevention Center will use the grant money to run the scorecard program year-round and involve multiple communities to assess its overall impact on the children’s physical activity.

“We hope that kids will find forms of physical activities that they are passionate about and do their whole lives and as a result are healthier,” Bryant said. “Our goal is for the community to be one in which it is real easy to be physically active and easy to be a kid.”

Stephen Sanders, co-director of the XRKade Lab and director of the College of Education’s School of Physical Education and Exercise Science, said he hopes to use the grant money to set up an XRKade Lab at a public school.

“We’re hoping that having a fun learning environment in physical education will increase children’s daily physical activity so that they do not become overweight,” Sanders said.

Sanders said the grant will be used to study the effects of the XRKade Lab at a Hillsborough County school for at least one year.

“We would not be able to set up a lab in schools with the exergaming equipment without it,” Sanders said. “When we get a facility set up in a public school, then our research faculty and our doctoral students will be in the schools every day to collect data about how children use the equipment, see what they like and don’t like, and take measurements like heart rate and how long children used pieces of equipment.”

By combining the programs, children’s levels of physical activity can be recorded on both a community and school-based level.

“This grant is huge because it really enables us to combine our forces and it allows us to take something that we were only able to do on a small scale and go up,” Petersen said. “If we can stop this trend then we can improve the quality of people’s lives, not just as children but across their entire lives.”