Michigan Sixth-Graders Shape Up Through School Health Effort

Wednesday, April 11th 2007, 3:38 pm
By: News On 6

ANN ARBOR, Mich (AP) _ Preston Brooks replaced lunchtime bacon double-cheeseburgers with submarine sandwiches loaded with vegetables.

And never looked back.

The 12-year-old sixth-grader credits his healthier outlook to an ambitious effort to tackle obesity in five middle schools.

``I've learned how to make better choices about what I eat,'' Brooks said.

So have more than 1,000 other students. Since the Healthy Schools program began as a pilot program at one middle school three years ago, sixth-graders who have taken part in it have lost weight and lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The project uses 20-minute lessons, motivational speakers and eye-catching props to teach kids about basic nutrition and encourage exercise. The program is a collaboration between Ann Arbor public schools and the University of Michigan Health System.

The 12-week program, which includes medical screenings OK'ed by parents, now is offered at all five Ann Arbor middle schools. About 1,200 sixth-graders are signed up, and about half of those are part of an ongoing study that's tracking results and lifestyle changes.

Early survey results are promising.

Forty percent of those studied last year were considered ``at-risk'' in at least one medical screening category. Thirty-two percent were overweight, 9 percent had high blood pressure and nearly 10 percent had cholesterol levels above 200, a troubling sign at such an early age.

Those numbers belied Ann Arbor's well-educated, health-conscious image, where the University of Michigan casts a long shadow and many children come from white-collar homes. The results also affirmed a long-standing belief held by the program's lead organizer.

``We know child obesity is an epidemic, but we never want to believe it's a problem locally,'' said Dr. Kim Eagle, a University of Michigan cardiologist who helped raise $100,000 in donations and public grants to launch the project in 2004.

By last spring, students who were being tracked in the program showed improvement in every medical screening category.

Of the 292 students who took part in the study of 2005-06, 47 of 142 with high triglycerides reduced their levels. Nine of the 21 students who had cholesterol levels above 200 reduced them below that mark. Researchers didn't make numbers available on the students who lost weight but note that several did.

So, how did Ann Arbor do it?

Organizers followed this simple lesson plan: Teach good eating habits, promote fitness, and nudge school administrators into offering healthier foods.

Along with exercise and 20-minute lessons from teachers and the Michigan Health System staff, Ann Arbor middle school students were offered better food choices.

In the Clague Middle School cafeteria, for instance, french fries were replaced with baked potatoes. Bacon-double-cheeseburgers, high-fat meat pizzas and foot-long hot dogs were downsized or eliminated. Vegetables with dip and a fruit salad bar were added to the daily menu. School vending machines now offer water and fruit juice instead of soda.

Making these changes also meant challenging food service contractors whose bottom line relied on high-profit _ and high-fat _ lunch items.

``We really pushed the district and the food vendors more,'' said Michael Hecker, the principal of Clague, the pilot school. ``It may cost more, but it's better for kids.''

Susan Aaronson, a university health system dietitian, delivers the program message with props, such as Crisco-filled test tubes representing the amount of fat found in various foods and a plastic model showing the four stages of clogged arteries. She said sixth-graders are a perfect audience.

``Until now, they've been handed a lunch tray,'' she said. ``For the first time, they have choices.''

At Clague, some choices include more exercise, especially for sixth-graders who are no longer required to take P.E. after they move into seventh grade.

``I've had kids tell me playing their musical instrument is exercise,'' said Kim Jackson, 30, a Clague P.E. and health teacher.

She said Clague seventh- and eighth-graders are remembering what they learned in sixth grade. ``They know they have to increase their heart rate to get the benefits of exercise.''

Dr. Gary Edelson, an endocrinologist and president of the American Diabetes Association of Michigan, said he thinks the early intervention is a good idea. ``If our children learn good habits, they will carry them into adulthood.''

Clague sixth-grader Sabrina Dotimas, 12, said she is eating better and exercising more because of Project Healthy Schools.

``I used to be really lazy, but now I can run around this place 10 times,'' she said. She still craves soda pop, but avoids it because of its high sugar content.

``Now, healthy eating to me is five fruits and vegetables every day and not eating so much junk food,'' she said.

That's a good sign to Eagle, who has seen his share of heart-related deaths, including a woman who died after a heart attack during childbirth. To him, battling child obesity is Job 1.

``I see the future, and it scares me,'' said Eagle, who next year plans to expand the project into a second Michigan school district. ``We're hoping to create an army of volunteers who can spread the word about good health.''