Las Vegas Sun

January 17, 2018

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Fighting the obesity trend


March 20 - 21, 2004

Local elementary and middle school students are learning to live a healthy lifestyle through a collaborative health education program being conducted by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the Henderson Parks and Recreation Department.

The Hearts N' Parks program, which aims to reduce childhood obesity and the potential future consequences of poor diet and inactivity, has served more than 400 elementary school students since being implemented in after-school Safekey programs last year, according to Molly Michelman, visiting instructor at UNLV's department of nutrition sciences.

The program is a success, Michelman said.

Of all the states participating in the Hearts N' Parks program, Nevada has shown the most significant progress so far, she said.

"Our testing indicates that the children who participated have not only dramatically improved their ability to identify heart-healthy foods, but are also more willing to eat healthier and engage in more physical activities," Michelman said.

Nevada was one of only 11 states selected nationwide to participate in the Hearts N' Parks program. In addition to the UNLV and Henderson partnership, the municipalities of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Reno and Sparks are also participating in the program.

The Field Experience and Nutrition program is currently available in Henderson elementary and middle schools.

"We're looking to expand," Michelman said. "We'd like to eventually go to schools across the city."

Michelman developed an undergraduate course at UNLV called Field Experience and Nutrition last spring, specifically designed to support the Hearts N' Parks initiative.

The class requires undergraduate students to develop, teach and modify lesson plans "that stress the importance of good nutrition and physical fitness to children in participating Henderson schools," Michelman said.

College students visit the schools four times over a six-week period, during which they administer a pre-test to get a feel for each group of students, provide nutrition and fitness intervention lessons, then follow with a post-test questionnaire to obtain data that can be used to create future lesson plans.

"It's a hot time to discuss childhood obesity and do something about it," Michelman said. "We're reaching elementary school and middle school children and looking to branch out even more."

Last spring, the program's first semester, the students worked with 16 Henderson elementary schools through their after school Safekey program, Michelman said. By the second semester all 23 Henderson elementary schools that have Safekey were included, she said.

This semester the program has graduated to work with five Henderson middle schools, through the Teen Scene after-school program.

Michelman's undergraduate class consists of five college students, each assigned to a different middle school.

In previous semesters undergraduate students taught existing nutrition lessons to Henderson students.

This year UNLV students are required to write the lessons themselves, Michelman said.

"My students go to the school for a pre-test to talk to the students and find out what they like or don't like, whether they wanted to do more discussions or more physical activities," she said. "Then they totally write the lessons themselves."

The program varies, depending on age, Michelman said. Elementary school children love anything they can compete in, she said.

"We do everything from nutrition bingo to relay races," she said. "The students love to compete and they love to win."

Hands-on visuals are also popular among younger students.

"We show them tubes of fat and tell them how much is in fast foods," she said. "We'll also do things like show them a 5-pound bag of sugar and say, "If you drink one soda per day, you're having six of these bags of sugar a year.'

"Kids really respond to the shock factor," she said.

The program also features taste-testing, in which children can taste foods such as baked potato chips.

"If students can taste something like baked chips or low-fat foods, then maybe they'll remember when they go to the grocery store that it tastes good and they can tell their parents," Michelman said. "Then next time the parents will pick up the baked chips instead."

In addition to taste-testing and visual learning, middle school students are taught through more grown-up discussions, exercise and activities.

Children make a collage of "what nutrition means to them" by using magazines, such as Sports Illustrated, to find different pictures of exercise, healthy foods and even toothbrush ads.

"We also gave students throwaway cameras and asked them to take creative pictures," she said.

All five middle schools will join for a celebration April 29, when they will have the chance to meet with athletes, eat healthy snacks, exercise and compete for most creative photo.

For more information, contact Molly Michelman at 895-4478 or by e-mail at [email protected]