BALTIMORE, MD - A program pairing healthy young adults with urban middle school students helped the adolescents adopt healthy habits, active lifestyles and a healthy weight, according to a new study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that linking African American, inner city adolescents in Baltimore with one-on-one mentorship from college students prevented the schoolchildren from becoming overweight for at least two years after the mentorship experience. Researchers found the adolescents ate fewer snacks and desserts, and engaged in active play more often. The rate of overweight/obesity in the group declined five percent.
The home- and community-based intervention - a program called Challenge! - shows promise as a way to have a major impact on children's lives, according to the study's lead author, Maureen M. Black, Ph.D., John A. Scholl, M.D., and Mary Louise Scholl, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The rate of childhood obesityin America has tripled in the past three decades, particularly among low income, urban children. Parents alone are often unable to prevent excessive weight gain among their children. More than three-quarters of the caregivers of children in the Challenge! study were overweight or obese themselves.
"Obesity puts children at risk for health problems now, during their adolescence, and certainly as they get older," says Dr. Black. "It places nearly every system in a child's body at risk - the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system, the endocrine system, and can also compromise a child'smental health. Ultimately, obesity affects longevity. Childhood obesity is a defining public health issue of our time."
Various existing obesity outreach programs target children in large groups, such as at school or at church, but Dr. Black and her colleagues noted that home-based interventions are lacking. With the help of an advisory board made up of urban youths in Baltimore, the researchers developed the Challenge! program as a way to bring "personal trainers" directly to children's homes to demonstrate for them how to live in a healthy way.
"We tried to normalize being healthy and taking care of yourself," says Dr. Black. The program even included a rap developed by a West Baltimore performer specifically for Challenge! "We wanted to make it normal and cool to be healthy and fit," Dr. Black adds.
The study enrolled 235 primarily African American children ages 11 through 16, all from low income, urban West Baltimore communities surrounding the University of Maryland School of Medicine. About 38 percent of the children were already overweight. Half of the kids were randomly assigned to the mentorship program Dr. Black and her colleagues designed, with a control group assigned to no intervention. For mentors, researchers recruited healthy African American students or recent African American graduates from Baltimore area colleges to visit one-on-one with the children for 12 sessions.