Miller School Study Shows Miami-Dade’s ‘Fit2Play’ Program Makes Kids Healthier

The initial results of a study that Sarah Messiah, Ph.D., research associate professor of pediatrics, is conducting in partnership with the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department have found that the “Fit2Play” after-school program offered in many county parks is “highly effective” in improving the health of kids and reducing and preventing childhood obesity and other health risk factors.

Messiah is touting the innovative program that aims to make exercise and health and nutritional education fun as a national model in the fight against childhood obesity and other cardiovascular-related diseases that at least a third of children and adolescents face today. “Miami-Dade County Parks is offering a highly effective public health program that fills a void for families and health professionals looking for a sustainable solution to the problem of childhood obesity and excessive weight gain,” she said. “Fit2Play is accessible, affordable and, as the data confirms, it is not only an effective obesity prevention strategy, but also instills positive attitudes and behaviors in children about physical fitness and health, which are critical to sustaining healthy weight in the long term.”

For the study, nearly 300 children ages 6 to 14 who were enrolled in Fit2Play during the 2010-2011 school year underwent pre- and post-measurement tests that provided a baseline for determining their fitness levels and nutritional needs, and for tracking their progress. Each child’s height and weight measurements were converted to a body mass index (BMI) age- and sex-adjusted percentile. Waist and hip circumference, along with bicep, tricep and shoulder blade skinfold measurements also were collected to determine body fat distribution. Physical fitness was assessed by sit-and-reach tests, timed sit-up and push-up tests, pacer tests, and a 400-meter run.

Analyzing the pre- and post- assessments, Messiah found that Fit2Play participants maintained healthy weight and BMI throughout the school year, and those who started the program with high blood pressure lowered it. The school children also improved their physical health, fitness levels and knowledge about nutrition and healthy lifestyle behavior.

“It is inspiring to receive this confirmation from the University of Miami that we are on the right track, teaching children how to develop healthy nutrition and fitness habits that will help them grow into healthy adults able to reach their full potential,” said Miami-Dade County Parks Director Jack Kardys.

Noting that one in four Floridians is classified as obese and at risk for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and depression, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez hailed Fit2Play for helping Miami-Dade residents realize that fitness doesn’t have to be a chore. “It can actually be fun, affordable and convenient,’’ Gimenez said. “Fit2Play is another great example of that.’’

Affordably priced and available at 34 county parks on a sliding scale, Fit2Play was established in 2005 by the parks department with fun – and the nation’s obesity epidemic – in mind. It incorporates exercise and health and nutritional education into enjoyable and engaging group activities, such as obstacle courses and nutrition relay challenges.

Each day’s after-school session begins with homework help, followed by Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids, or SPARK, evidence-based, outcome-oriented activities designed to develop and improve motor skills, movement knowledge, and social and personal skills and improve the quantity and quality of physical activity that children engage in. Nutrition knowledge is delivered through the American Heart Association and Alliance for A Healthier Generation’s empowerME4Life curriculum, and was assessed using a nine-item scale.

Underscoring perhaps the most critical behavioral change, the study showed Fit2Play participants also significantly improved their nutrition knowledge over the year, with 22 percent more children answering at the end of the year, “I should limit the amount of TV” I watch, as compared to the beginning. They also identified soda as the bad drink versus water. Similarly, 21 percent more children were able to correctly identify how physical activity improved their health and 20 percent more answered, “It is healthy to eat fruits and vegetables at every meal.”

The Miami-Dade Parks Department established the program in response to startling statistics that showed the rate of obesity and overweight adults in Miami-Dade was even higher than the national average. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of obesity and overweight adults in Miami-Dade County is 67.4 percent. It cited poor diet and physical inactivity as contributing to the obesity problem, as only 22.1 percent of adults in the county meet the federal government’s guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption.

Spanning three years, the UM study will continue through the 2012-2013 school year, with results for the second year currently in preparation for publication in a scientific journal in early 2013. The third year has just begun and will conclude in spring 2013.

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