Iowa State researchers team up with NFL PLAY 60 campaign to provide tools, analysis

AMES, Iowa -- They may not be as recognizable as the star professional football players who put kids through drills in the commercials for the National Football League's PLAY 60 campaign, but two Iowa State University researchers are also playing significant roles in the social marketing campaign developed by the NFL to help promote physical activity in youth.

Gregory Welk, an associate professor of kinesiology and Director of Clinical Research and Community Outreach at Iowa State's Nutrition and Wellness Research Center (NWRC); and Michelle Ihmels, an adjunct assistant professor of kinesiology and NWRC researcher, have been contributing to a comprehensive evaluation of the NFL PLAY 60 program. The "Play 60" mantra is intended to help remind kids to get 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

Welk's involvement with the NFL grew out of his previous position as director of childhood and adolescent health for the non-profit Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas, Texas, where he helped develop and promote FITNESSGRAM® -- a fitness and activity assessment software package that is being used by school-based physical education programs in 85,000 schools nationwide. He continues to serve as the scientific director of the FITNESSGRAM® program.

In that capacity, Welk participated last year in a meeting at the NFL's New York headquarters with officials from NFL Charities to discuss how FITNESSGRAM® could be used in the NFL's PLAY 60 campaign. The project is part of a $1.8 million grant awarded last December to The Cooper Institute to support an NFL PLAY 60 FITNESSGRAM partnership.

"The NFL is currently the main sponsor of the FITNESSGRAM program," Welk said. "In this separate evaluation component, each of the NFL's 32 franchises gets 35 site licenses to support PE in their regions. So you can kind of envision that they'd [the teams] use this in media marketing. For instance with the Chicago Bears, you could see the players going out to support fitness in nearby Chicago area schools. But we're also tracking fitness data and promoting a healthy school environment in those schools."

Welk's work with the NFL has also opened the door to administer the Family Nutrition and Physical Activity (FNPA) Screening Tool he and Ihmels created at ISU to families participating in PLAY 60. Developed from childhood obesity research conducted in partnership with the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the FNPA tool uses parent responses to 10 questions to predict a child's likelihood of becoming overweight or obese.

According to an NFL Charities' news release, data from the NFL PLAY 60 FITNESSGRAM program will be collected from student fitness assessments over the course of three years to form a youth longitudinal study tracking health-related fitness results and analyzing how best to intervene. The resulting data, which Welk and Ihmels are helping to collect and analyze, will be provided to local, state, and national policy makers.

"If you do the math, that's 1,120 schools that will be involved in the project," Ihmels said. "With hundreds of kids in each school, you start talking about a lot of data."

The tools provided by ISU researchers will also touch many more young lives in an effort to produce healthier kids. In addition to the NFL project, they are building a similar partnership here in Iowa. They have teamed up with researchers at the University of Northern Iowa to create an Iowa FITNESSGRAM partnership.

"Part of creating a healthy school environment is getting fitness information home to parents," Welk said. "By providing access and training to FITNESSGRAM, we're able to help schools [in the NFL project and in Iowa] create healthy environments -- and evaluating them over time."

Additional information is available online about the NFL PLAY 60 FITNESSGRAM program.