Alternative Gym Class Benefits Kids At Risk for Obesity
MADISON - Can anything be done to reverse the alarming trend toward increasing obesity and overweight among American children?
A continuing study by two UW Health sports medicine professionals says yes: middle-school students in the study improved their fitness and cardiovascular health substantially when they took part in an "alternative" physical education class where they chose the activities they enjoyed. Their findings suggest a previously sedentary lifestyle can be reversed if children are offered exercise options catered to their tastes and preferences.
Principal investigators Aaron Carrel, MD, medical director of the Sports Medicine Center's Pediatric Fitness Clinic, and Randy Clark, MS, manager of the exercise science laboratory, organized the study, which presented alternative gym class options to students considered at risk for obesity. The study was done at River Bluff Middle School in Stoughton.
With a school year's worth of data collected, Carrel and Clark found that the students in this "lifestyle-based" gym class had significant reductions in body fat and vast improvements in cardiovascular fitness and fasting insulin, an indicator of diabetes.
In short, the kids got healthier.
Organizing the Study
In his work at the Pediatric Fitness Clinic, Dr. Carrel had been trying for some time to organize a study of the fitness characteristics of children.
"Our group had been interested in the interaction between exercise and fitness levels, body composition and risks for diabetes," he says. "We thought cardiovascular fitness plays more of a role than just body fat."
That theory, however, was difficult to prove. Although he and his colleagues had no trouble attracting kids to the Fitness Clinic, scheduling difficulties often appeared. There was always an appointment at the orthodontist or a soccer game to work around.
"It just wasn't that feasible (for the participants) to come regularly," Carrel says.
Last summer, a pair of River Bluff staff members - guidance counselor Nancy Crassweller and physical education instructor Bob Hanssen - were concerned about the overall health of their students and approached Dr. Carrel for his advice.
"The problem with kids who become overweight is they pull away from activities because they don't want to embarrass themselves. The cycle of eating and inactivity keeps going," Hanssen said. "We wanted to see if there was anything we could do to fix it."
The school's physical education program turned out to be the perfect forum for the study Dr. Carrel envisioned and a potential solution for Crassweller's and Hanssen's concerns.
A New Kind of Gym Class
Carrel, Clark, Crassweller and Hanssen collaborated on a new concept in physical education: integrating into the gym class the activities to which students naturally gravitated. They divided the pool of 50 students deemed at risk for obesity into two groups: a control group that attended their regular gym classes and a test group that participated in activities the students naturally liked to do. Instead of playing dodgeball, for example, the kids in the test group opted for activities like rollerblading and bike riding during gym class hours.
"They're taught about things they can do for the rest of their life. It was a way to get them involved with movement as a lifestyle," Clark says.
"The curriculum was different," adds Dr. Carrel. "The new class had more of a focus on fitness and we tried to limit the number so it was a small class and the kids would have more supervision."
Carrel and Clark went to River Bluff two or three times per semester to monitor students' progress, and recently brought the study participants to the exercise science laboratory for a series of tests measuring three things: body mass index (BMI), cardiovascular fitness and fasting insulin. The results were encouraging.
"We said in a perfect world we'd like to see any one of these improve, and we'd consider it a success," says Carrel. "What actually happened is all three improved. We were really elated that something as small as changing a gym class can have such benefits for kids."
In fact, the students in the lifestyle-based class improved in a manner Clark called "significant" when compared with the progress of the kids in the control group, who attended their regular gym class.
'You've changed our lives'
Improved fitness, says Clark, wasn't the only gain.
"We've had parents tell us, 'You've changed our lives, you've changed our family,' " he says. "Instead of coming home and sitting in front of the computer or the TV, these kids grab their parents and go for a family walk or go for a bike ride. One of the most rewarding things I've experienced in my whole career here is talking to the kids and parents when they came back in for their final test."
Carrel and Clark have secured funding to continue the River Bluff study next year, and Carrel says they hope to expand the class to include children who are not overweight but exhibit substandard cardiovascular fitness. The pair will also present their findings to the American College of Sports Medicine in June at a conference in Nashville.
In the meantime, they have solid evidence to contradict that lingering belief that all kids want to do when they get home from school is sprawl out on the couch with a bag of Cheetos and the latest Vin Diesel DVD.
"There are a lot of people bashing this generation," says Clark. "But we're all at fault. Everything we do is designed to make life easier, from remote controls to garage door openers."
He continues, "You give these kids an opportunity, and they really come through. Plus, they had fun doing it. They enjoyed it."
Date Published: 01/29/2008