ISU study finds intervention program helps kids eat healthier, reduce screen time

AMES, Iowa -- A new Iowa State University study found that a family, school and community intervention program helps children live healthier lives and could be a new tool in the fight against the nation's childhood obesity epidemic.

In the study, children who participated in The Switch® program -- a program developed by the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) -- watched an average of two fewer hours of television and also consumed two more servings of fruits and vegetables per week than those who weren't in the program. Program participants also walked 300 more steps per day.

"The successes in this study were modest, which is what one would expect," said Iowa State Assistant Professor of Psychology Douglas Gentile, the lead researcher and director of research for NIMF. "People usually make incremental changes, but those add up over time."

In addition to Gentile, the 10-member research team included ISU researchers Greg Welk, an associate professor of kinesiology; and Dan Russell, a professor of human development and family studies; as well as former Iowa State kinesiology professor Joey Eisenmann. The research team authored a paper on their results, which has been posted online in BMC Medicine, a professional journal in the United Kingdom.

The researchers evaluated the eight-month intervention program in a group of 1,323 students (third, fourth and fifth graders) and their parents from 10 schools -- split between Lakeville, Minn., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Measures of the key behaviors were collected three times from the children -- prior to administering the program, immediately after it was completed, and six months following its completion.

The Switch® program encourages children to "Switch what they Do, View and Chew™" and features three components: community, school and family. The community component promotes awareness of the importance of healthy lifestyles using paid advertising, such as billboards; and unpaid media, including editorials. The school component reinforces the Switch messages by providing teachers with materials and methods to integrate key health concepts into the school day. And in the family component, participating families receive monthly packets containing behavioral tools to assist them in altering their health behaviors.

"The program is designed to be a more comprehensive approach to childhood obesity prevention," Gentile said. "It results from several lessons we learned, while creating interventions over the past 15 years. One is that focusing on kids can work, but unless the family's on board, you're not going to get much movement. So the ideal program would be to work at multiple ecological levels all at once so that people are getting repeated, parallel, overlapping messages at the individual, family and community levels."

Gentile reports that the positive effects on children remained significant at the six-month follow-up evaluation, indicating maintenance of these differences over time. In fact, they increased slightly following the intervention, which may contribute to reduced weight risks in the future.

"To me, the strongest finding is that we found stronger results in the six-month follow-up than at the end of the intervention -- and that's unique," said ISU's Welk, who studies exercise and health. "That would imply that the lessons took hold after the intervention and families have had time to apply them to their lives."

The ISU researchers are planning further analysis of the data gathered in this research for future studies, including one that will explore a "booster" component of The Switch® program.

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