A pilot study by a group of UC Merced students changed the way local elementary students stay active and may help open a pathway toward lowering the region’s high rate of childhood obesity.
Students from a public health class led by adjunct professor Erin Gaab spent the past school year working with more than 100 third- to sixth-grade students at Merced’s Rivera Elementary School to take on the NFL Play 60 challenge.
The campaign led by the National Football League encourages participants to record 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Through the challenge, the NFL aims to promote the importance of healthy lifestyles.
Six students from Gaab’s class recorded the physical measurements and body mass indexes of 35 of the elementary students during the course of the program.
Nicole Morgan, a public health major and group member, said the UC Merced group spent four days of each week – Monday through Thursday – leading the students in 10 minutes of activities, shifting each minute between jumping jacks, high kicks, squats, jump roping and hula hooping.
To fulfill the other 50 minutes, each student had a homework log to be verified by their parents. Students could do anything from bike riding, going to the park, walking their dogs or going to weekly team practices.
“The activities they did can be done anywhere,” Morgan said. “They don’t need to get a gym membership or sign up for sports.”
Fridays were dedicated to recording height, weight and body mass indexes of the 35 participants who agreed to be measured, Morgan said. Of those students, the average BMI reduction was 2 percent and 23 percent of participants saw their BMI decrease by at least 5 percent.
The idea of involving parents in the home portion of the challenge helped make the campaign sustainable, Gaab said.
Positive feedback came from the parents, teachers and the principal, participants said. One parent left a note on a homework log saying, “Amen, exercise is great.”
“This pilot was a good way to see if we can make some impact on a small scale,” said Dr. Wais Arsala, sports medicine physician at Kaiser Modesto Medical Center. “I think this is a small step in the right direction.”
This fall, Gaab will start research for her study, supported by the Health Sciences Research Institute, that applies the NFL Play 60 challenge to eight classrooms at two elementary schools in Merced County.
Gaab said she was impressed by the group’s results and will be applying their project to a larger scale to help fight the obesity that is widespread in the Central Valley.
“Whether they realize it or not, they are in the middle of an epidemic for obesity,” Arsala said.
According to KidsData.org, 45 percent of Merced County children in fifth grade are overweight or obese, a rate 5 percent higher than for California fifth-graders overall.
“By establishing healthy, active lifestyles in childhood, we can decrease our rate of obesity. Maintaining healthy weight, especially from a young age, lowers our community’s risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome,” Gaab said.
Arsala said it is essential that people incorporate exercise into their daily regimens, even if it means taking the stairs or parking a little bit farther to take some extra steps.
“It’s so easy to sit inside and play video games or watch TV and watch someone else be active,” Arsala said.