PROGRAM TARGETS OBESITY AMONG HISPANIC TEENS

August 1, 2002

Obesity is rising at alarming rates. According to the Surgeon Generalâ??s recent report, â??Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity,â? 13 percent of children aged 6 to 11 years and 14 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 years were overweight or obese in 1999. That number has almost tripled in the last two decades.

UNT Health Science Centerâ??s School of Public Health is collaborating with the University of North Texasâ?? Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation and the Dallas Independent School District in an obesity research program called Project PATH (Participating and Training in Health).

Funded with a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Project PATH is aimed at increasing the proportion of high school students who engage in vigorous physical activity, reducing the proportion of obese and overweight students, and reducing cigarette smoking in that age group, while teaching graduate students how to deliver health promotion programs to underserved populations.

Hector Balcazar, PhD, chair of social and behavioral sciences, is coordinating the research in part due to his success with the program Salud para su Corazón (Health for Your Heart) in north Texas. That program was targeted at the areaâ??s fast-growing Hispanic population, which has a higher rate of overweight and obesity than any other racial group.

Salud para su Corazón is being tweaked by graduate students from the School of Public Health to fit into high school semesters and class schedules and will be a core piece of Project PATH. Most of the research will focus on North Dallas High School, which has a high percentage of Hispanic students.

About 800 ninth graders will be involved with Project PATH. Coordinators will encourage a change in health behavior of these students through classroom materials and discussions, videos, diet, nutrition, and physical activity. The graduate students â?? three are bilingual â?? will work in the classrooms as teachersâ?? aides and will help coordinate extracurricular activities for the students. They will also serve as mentors â?? both for physical activity and for getting high school freshmen interested in careers in health and science. By starting with the ninth graders, the researchers hope to be able to track the effects of the health education throughout the participantsâ?? high school years.

â??We are trying to integrate it into the context of high school, so it will trigger interest in students to exercise and to do heart-healthy activities, which will ultimately improve their health,â? Dr. Balcazar said. The program also includes booklets, comic books and instructions in both English and Spanish to help make it culturally relevant to people whose primary language is Spanish.

Because the overweight and obese population is growing among adults â?? 61 percent of all adult Americans fall into the category â?? it is important for students to take what they learn home to be read by parents and grandparents, Dr. Balcazar said. The information might spur the whole family to eat healthier and exercise, which will contribute to a better lifestyle for many North Texans.

â??We are very excited about the opportunity the coordinating board has given us to impact the lifestyle of grade-school children,â? said Dr. James Morrow, professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation at the University of North Texas and principal investigator on Project PATH. â??We look forward to working with our students and colleagues to help these students achieve healthy lifestyles and lifelong healthy habits.â?

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