Web Program Helps Kids With Diet, Exercise

Encourages them to eat healthful foods and be active

THURSDAY, March 4, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- An interactive Internet program helps children reduce dietary fat and increase exercise, researchers report.

A team of researchers from Marquette University reports on a new program that helps children to a more healthful lifestyle. They presented their findings March 4 at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association Annual Conference of Cardiovascular Disease, Epidemiology and Prevention in San Francisco.

"An Internet and video program for seventh-grade students, who are most at risk for the ill effects of poor nutrition and lack of exercise, improved both nutrition and exercise," says lead researcher Dr. Marilyn Frenn, an associate professor of nursing at Marquette.

Frenn and her colleagues conducted a two-month study, during which 137 children used an interactive Internet program and saw short videos that encouraged them to reduce fat and increase exercise.

The Internet part of the program included radio buttons, which provided information on diet and exercise and enabled selections, and interactive message boards. The children could also have their diet and exercise questions answered by personal e-mails from nursing students.

The videos help children see how other children handle similar problems and suggested ways that they could use to improve their own diet and increase the amount of time they exercise.

"We work with the kids to help them think about what they're doing, what's recommended, the barriers they see to improving diet and exercise, and how can they get past them," Frenn says.

Most of the children came from low-income families, Frenn says. These children are considered to be at the greatest risk for becoming obese and having high blood pressure, especially black and Hispanic children, she adds.

Among the children who participated in at least half of the eight class periods, there was significant improvement in both diet and exercise, Frenn says. Children who went to fewer than half the sessions did not improve.

For children who showed improvement, the percentage of dietary fat dropped from about 31 percent of their caloric intake to about 30 percent. But for those in the control group, the dietary fat remained about 32 percent throughout the study, the researchers report.

In addition, the successful children increased their levels of exercise by an average of 22 minutes per week compared to children who attended fewer sessions, who had a 66-minute decrease in their weekly exercise.

For the children who decreased dietary fat and increased exercise, there should be a loss of about half a pound per week, while for the other students there would likely be a slow weight gain, Frenn says.

As part of the program, the children were encouraged to ask their parents for fruits or vegetables instead of junk food. Children also got recipes online for low-fat snacks and breakfast foods.

Frenn's team found that among low-income students there was less family support for diet and exercise. In addition, teenage girls needed more support to increase exercising.

However, they found that Hispanic children in communities with strong cultural ties were more likely to lower dietary fat and had more support at home than those in more culturally diverse areas, Frenn says.

"While this area was low-income, there was a cultural center, outdoor markets with Hispanic foods, stores and clinics," Frenn says. "There was a protective effect for those kids, when compared with culturally diverse neighborhoods. So environment also makes a difference."

By the end of the study, the children knew how many calories they should eat and how many of these calories should come from fat. They also learned that having fast food more than once a week increases their risk of obesity, Frenn says.

Frenn believes this program can be expanded and used in middle-school health and science classes. She and her colleagues continue to fine-tune the program, and plan to retest the students in this study after a year to see if they continue to eat healthy and exercise regularly.

Dr. David L. Katz, the director of the Yale Prevention Research Center at Yale University, comments that "kids respond well to a positive approach."

"Recent research shows that restrictive feeding practices by parents concerned about their children's weight backfire," Katz says. "In contrast, this approach, which appears to empower the kids to take action on their own behalf, had positive effects."

Weight control will likely take the same proverbial "village" that most challenging endeavors require, Katz says. "We need approaches that can be shared among and reinforced by members of a family and throughout the community," he adds.

"Technology replacing the work of muscles is certainly part of what is driving the obesity epidemic. The use of technology to combat these very trends is encouraging," Katz says.

More information

The American Heart Association has a page on obesity and children, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Information Center can tell you more about a healthful diet.

SOURCES: Marilyn Frenn, Ph.D., R.N., associate professor, nursing, Marquette University, Milwaukee; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Yale Prevention Research Center, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; March 4, 2004, presentation, American Heart Association Annual Conference of Cardiovascular Disease, Epidemiology and Prevention, San Francisco
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