Middle schools targeted in obesity fight

Grants available to help kids maintain daily physical activity

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A new state initiative aimed at fighting obesity among middle school students will take a carrot-and-stick approach to promoting increased physical activity.

The stick: All schools that receive federal funding for after-school and summer programs will have to ensure 30 to 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity for students in grades 6-8. "Activity" is the key word -- sitting around waiting to play volleyball doesn't count.

The carrot: Middle schools can apply for an Active Schools grant of $15,000 to implement proven physical education programs that provide the same 30 to 60 minutes of daily activity during the regular school year. A third of that money will come from federal block grants, and another two-thirds from organizations such as Highmark Healthy High Five Foundation that have an interest in a healthier population.

Some 40 schools will be chosen for the program. Schools that demonstrate improvements after the first year will be able to apply for a second round of funding.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Everette James and Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak announced the initiatives yesterday at Albert Gallatin South Middle School in Point Marion, Fayette County.

That district over the last several years reduced by 20 percent the body mass index [weight relative to height] of students by changing the school menu and increasing physical activity.

"We'll be the first state to condition federal grant money on implementing 30 to 60 minutes of daily physical activity," said Mr. James.

The point is to increase aerobic activity, cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, bone density and flexibility during the middle school years, when students are forming habits that may follow them through. It's also the time when the greatest amount of bone density is formed.

The long-term goal is to reverse some alarming health statistics: 34 percent of Pennsylvania middle school students are overweight or obese, and only 38 per cent get the recommended hour of exercise a day, Mr. James said.

The results of rising weights here and across the nation include a higher incidence of all manner of ills, from diabetes and heart disease to cancer. Meanwhile, the state spends more than $1 billion a year in obesity-related medical assistance.

Over time, Mr. James said, "We need a coordinated approach involving school menus and improving nutrition. But right now we're targeting physical activity, which has dramatically declined over last 20 years while the body mass index has tripled."

Just that sort of coordinated effort is currently under way in Pittsburgh, one of seven study sites for a federally funded trial to see if a multi-pronged approach will reduce weight gain in middle schoolers.

The healthy program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is about to wrap up its third and final year at six schools in the region. Full-bore intervention has been ongoing at three Pittsburgh Public middle schools -- Frick, Arsenal and Allegheny. The control schools are South Hills, Pittsburgh Classical Academy and Beaver Falls middle schools.

Participating students at all six schools had in-depth assessments, including blood tests to check cholesterol levels. At the study's end, researchers will compare outcomes of the two sets of schools.

In the intervention schools, researchers worked with staff and students to replace high-fat, high-sugar food and drinks on the menu with things like whole wheat pizza and lower calorie snacks; increased the amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity; explained the science of energy intake and output; and addressed issues of social behavior and peer pressure.

Co-investigator Elizabeth Venditti, a psychologist in the psychiatry department of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, said the results of the study should be ready later in the year.

" If it doesn't shift obesity in any way, the answer might not be doing it through the schools," Dr. Venditti said. "If it does, I think it will influence policy nationwide, including the national school lunch program."

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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