WVU collaboration strives to overcome childhood obesity in the state

Health

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 19.6 percent of children in West Virginia are obese.

A team of West Virginia University researchers is actively working to change that reality through the West Virginia Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities (CARDIAC) Project. The effort is in multiple West Virginia counties surveilling, intervening, and researching children to see where they stand now and improve their health outcomes.

Eloise Elliott, Ph.D.

We continue to screen and do school-based screening with kindergarten, second grade, and fifth-grade children. And that’s how we know the prevalence of obesity specific to our state. Prior to 2018, we were funded by the legislature, so we were a line item in the state budget, so we were able to work in all 55 counties. Now we no longer have that funding, so this past year we implemented this project in 20 West Virginia counties. We screened close to 9,000 children, and of those children, we found out that 47 percent of the fifth graders were overweight or obese and 38 percent of second graders, and 31.5 percent of kindergarten children.

Eloise Elliott, Ph.D. – WVU Ware Distinguished Professor

Elliott said she and other researchers continue to see that trends remain level and that is concerning. She said her goal and the Ware Family Foundation’s goal, which funds her position, is to move the needle in the right direction and decrease rates of childhood obesity in West Virginia.

Part of the strategy for doing that is working closely with schools, communities, and families to provide resources and strategies. For example, the CARDIAC Project offers non-physical education teachers ways to integrate physical activities into their classrooms, so kids remain active. In fact, they are developing a new online instruction module for parents and teachers to use with the same goal in mind.

“Our goal is to provide resources and try to bring together people that their goal is to promote physical activity,” Elliott said. “So right now, we are featuring mini-grants for West Virginia schools and communities to promote physical activity. And that website is activewv.org.”

Students at Jennings Randolph Elementary School in Elkins practice yoga in the classroom in fall 2018, led by Tracey Valach, a Youth Health Educator with WVU Extension Service in Randolph County.
(WVU Extension Photo/Tracey Valach)

It’s important to start now when children are young, Ware said, because unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise are all habits that can follow children into adulthood. That is why the project focuses on elementary and middle school-aged children.

She said children in third through fifth grade are old enough to take what they learn and relay it to their parents, family members, and communities. The hope is that this encourages the child to adopt a more healthy lifestyle to keep up as an adult.

“Children who are obese, about 80 percent of them will become obese adults if they don’t change, if something doesn’t happen when they’re children,” Elliott said. “And so we know it’s a critical time for children to learn healthy lifestyle behavior and to actually start to implement those and start to think about how they do that in their everyday environment.”

The problem isn’t always that children are unwilling to change, but that often, when they do, parents remain reluctant to follow suit. This makes it “very difficult” for the child to sustain their new lifestyle, Elliott said.

For this reason, Elliott said she thinks it’s “very important” for parents to take an active role in changing the tide of childhood obesity with their children.

Strangely enough, Elliott said, the pandemic has been very good for getting parents on board. The research isn’t definitive, seeing as we’re still in the pandemic, but there have been more outreach from parents.

“We do see where parents are saying ‘oh, now we’re doing things as a family, we’re walking outside, we’re doing physical activities’,” Elliott said. “So one thing that we’re trying to help parents to realize is that there’s a number of resources out there for them now.”

Elliott said the CARDIAC Project provides parents resources for how to remain active with their children during the pandemic. She said moving forward there will be at least one benefit of COVID-19 and that will be how much it has improved physical activity in the state.

“Teachers are going to be more connected with parents than they have been in the past and vice versa, parents are going to rely more on teachers,” Elliott said. “And so I think it’s going — I hope we can see this moving forward as a positive thing to help promote healthy lifestyles.”

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