It’s a Friday afternoon and the school day is over, and kids are running around the football field at the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex as kids will do on a Friday afternoon when the school day is over.
The elementary school students play sharks and minnows and sprinting games and flag tag, although their favorite activity seems to be chasing Herky around the field.
“Where’s Herky?” one asks, not knowing the bird has stepped out for a breather.
“He disappeared,” says another, and they resume chasing flags wedged into other students’ pockets.
The more than 100 Iowa City-area students were participants in Healthy LifeStars, an initiative from the University of Iowa College of Public Health that fights childhood obesity by encouraging students to be more active and eat more nutritious food. Childhood obesity has become a serious public health issue in the U.S., as more and more children are classified as significantly overweight. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the number of obese children in the United States between the ages of 6 and 19 has tripled since the 1970s, rising to 20% in 2015. In Iowa, about 18% of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese, according to 2018 data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The health issues caused by childhood obesity are many, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and bone and joint problems. Moreover, people whose childhood habits cause them to be obese are more apt to carry those habits into adulthood, increasing the likelihood they will continue to struggle with weight-related health issues as they age.
Most analyses peg the increase in childhood obesity on two factors: eating too many high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, and not enough physical activity. The College of Public Health has rolled out several initiatives in recent years designed to address these factors and reduce the number of obese children in Iowa. The college’s Business Leadership Network has provided resources to community organizations in Fort Dodge and Sioux City to help implement childhood obesity initiatives. The college’s Prevention Research Center has developed a concession-stand tool kit to help booster clubs and parent groups offer more nutritious foods at school concession stands. And the Healthy Schools-Healthy Students program works with districts across Iowa to offer healthier school meals.
Healthy LifeStars is the latest effort in that initiative, and it works by encouraging elementary school-aged children to address both the root causes of obesity by eating healthy and staying active while also learning to set goals.
“They learn these skills early and then take them into adulthood, so it sets the pattern of living a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives,” says Vickie Miene, interim director of the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy, who oversees the Healthy LifeStars program.
The current focus is on students in the Iowa City area who attend after-school programs at Lucas, Alexander, Garner, and Wood elementary schools; the Pheasant Ridge Neighborhood Center; and Iowa City Compassion, a nonprofit that helps people move out of poverty and inspires them to be of service to others. Every week, more than 200 participants are coached in their schools and community centers by UI students from the College of Public Health and the Health and Human Physiology Department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. They tell the children about the importance of healthy eating and regular exercise, and show them fun new activities they can play to keep moving.
“Our students get a healthy snack, and then at least one hour of physical activity,” says Allison Fuhrmeister, the associate youth program director for the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County. “The kids get really sweaty and active and it’s great, the way they keep moving.”
The children also get to participate in events like the afterschool activity at the football practice field, the kick-off to a national step-a-thon event. Healthy LifeStars participants in Iowa, Ohio, Colorado, and Arizona each were given a pedometer to wear for a week in a competition to see who could get the most steps.
“The kids love it and it really works,” says Fuhrmeister. “They can play in a welcoming and safe environment and then they go home and hopefully continue with what they’ve learned.”
Miene says that while the program can be adapted for children from any socioeconomic group, the UI program for now is aimed at schools and community centers that work with underserved children.
“The data show us that those are the students who struggle most with obesity and poor nutrition, so working with them gives us the most opportunity to help prevent childhood obesity,” says Miene.
Healthy LifeStars will be available in communities across the state within three years, Miene says. It will expand this summer to Hills Elementary School in Hills, Iowa, and Twain Elementary School in Iowa City, as well as to Des Moines, where it will be offered in partnership with the South Suburban YMCA, and to West Union in northeast Iowa.
The program is free in Iowa thanks to a gift to the university from the Jerre and Mary Joy Stead family.