UGA researchers receive grants to reduce childhood obesity in Georgia communities

air_quality_2Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia researchers recently received funding to find ways to prevent or reduce childhood obesity, a health crisis of epidemic proportions in Georgia, through partnerships among University System of Georgia institutions and local communities.

Three of the four projects funded by the University System of Georgia are headed by or include UGA researchers. Two projects aim to reduce childhood obesity by working with after-school programs, while a third aims to reduce obesity in newborns by reaching pregnant and post-partum women through local obstetricians.

“Broad-based community partnerships, as exemplified by UGA’s Archway Partnership project, have the potential to be more effective and more sustainable than other approaches in addressing childhood obesity,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research.

“With faculty experts in nutrition, school exercise programs, health-risk communications, the use of new media to better communicate with youth, health policies and assessment of intervention methods, UGA is in a unique position to join with our state’s communities to develop, implement and evaluate obesity prevention efforts,” he added.

Georgia ranks as the third worst in the nation with over one third of children overweight or obese, according to a 2009 report by Trust for America’s Health. According to a recent report from

But obesity is not the only issue, according to Lee.

“Obesity translates into chronic disease—heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and even enhanced predisposition to certain cancers—and collectively this adds up to a huge financial burden on our health care system that is borne by all levels of government, and ultimately, the taxpayer,” he said. “Among other things, this cost is a disincentive to economic development, including recruitment and retention of forward-thinking companies.”

A recent assessment of the nation’s health, jointly published by United Health Foundation, the American Public Health Association and Partnership for Prevention, reported that the current annual direct healthcare costs associated with obesity in Georgia is $2.5 billion. The projected increase in obesity – as high as 47 percent – will bring the direct costs to $11 billion by 2018.

This fall in Athens-Clarke County, Phillip Tomporowski and Bryan McCullick, faculty members in the department of kinesiology in UGA’s College of Education, and Catherine Davis, a clinical health psychologist at the Medical College of Georgia, will begin a project to introduce fun and effective exercise games into the Clarke County after-school program curriculum.

Previous research by Tomporowski and Davis demonstrated the cognitive benefits of vigorous exercise programs among overweight school-age children. But the appropriate instructional conditions also must be present, according to McCullick.

Historically, he said, inadequate workplace conditions—including oversized classes, weak equipment and facilities, as well as low regard for physical education subject matter—and inadequate professional development have been obstacles to effecting changes in children’s physical activity.

“It’s led to school environments that may impede, rather than facilitate, children’s engagement in health-promoting levels of physical activity,” he said.

In addition, physical education and physical activity during the school day have been cut back over the last decade. However, according to Tomporowski, after-school programs present opportunity.

“With preparation, after-school teachers can motivate children to be physically active and engage in games that are of the intensity and duration to reap health benefits,” he said.

In a second project, researchers will work through YMCA after-school programs in Colquitt County and with the Healthy Colquitt Coalition to increase children’s physical activity, healthy eating habits and family involvement—all known strategies for reducing childhood obesity.

The researchers are working with UGA’s Archway Program, one of eight programs in the state through which the university lends its expertise to address community-identified problems.

“Because obesity is a complex issue, we need to work with, rather than in, the community,” said Marsha Davis, an associate professor in the department of health promotion and behavior in UGA’s College of Public Health. In addition to Davis, project researchers include Archway Partnership director Mel Garber; Emily Watson, the Archway Professional in Colquitt County; and Frances McCarty of the Institute of Public Health at Georgia State University.

In Statesboro, a third project will use the Internet and social media to encourage physical activity in women during pregnancy and after childbirth. Research has shown a critical link exists between childhood obesity and the prenatal health behaviors and gestational weight gain of the mother, yet only a third of U.S. women gain weight within the recommended range during pregnancy, and less than a quarter meet minimum daily exercise recommendations.

“There’s growing evidence that technological learning and social media are as effective as traditional programs for increasing physical activity,” said Michael Schmidt, an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at UGA. “This study is aimed at young women who are entering childbearing years and are comfortable with these ways of learning.”

Schmidt is collaborating with Bridget Melton and Helen Graf, faculty members in the department of health and kinesiology, and Elaine Marshall, a professor of nursing, at Georgia Southern University; Dr. W. Kent Guion, physical therapy and graduate studies, Medical College of Georgia; and Dr. James Hiller, obstetrician and gynecologist, East Georgia Regional Medical Center.

Posted August 23, 2010.