Research Communications

Healthy Habits: Medical student explores how families can sustain changes in nutrition, exercise 

By Adam Liebendorfer

A growing number of programs designed to boost the health and wellness of American families often are short-term, intensive courses in nutrition and exercise. While adults and kids may enjoy immediate benefits, do these programs help families form long-lasting healthy habits?

That’s the question Michelle Crane, a second-year medical student at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, posed when examining the outcomes of an Ohio University health intervention program led by faculty members, TAKE ACTION.

 By Christina Ullman
Illustration by Christina Ullman

Diabetes and other weight-related problems are particularly acute in Appalachia, where obesity afflicts more than 75 percent of the population in some counties. Rural families not only have less access to healthier foods than those who live closer to cities, but also have more limited opportunities to learn how to live healthfully.

In 2007 and 2008, researchers held eight-week summer programs that called for children and parents to come to the Athens Community Center twice per week for two hours of wellness classes and exercise. Advertised in local health clinics, the program drew 39 parents and kids. Over the course of the program, participants improved their cardiovascular fitness and shrank their waistlines, and some adults lost weight.

Crane contacted TAKE ACTION participants during summer 2011 to find out whether they were able to maintain these healthy habits. Most participants noted that the program’s social support was valuable and said they were still enthusiastic and confident about pursuing a healthier lifestyle. However, almost all of the participants had fallen back into their old routines because they lacked that support structure to keep reinforcing good eating and exercise habits.

“One big thing we heard was that one parent would say they wished the other parent had been part of the program too so they could have learned along and helped each other remember parts of the nutrition component,” she says.
 Michelle Crane
Michelle Crane (Photo by Ben Siegel)

Because young children had the most success with the program, the TAKE ACTION team is now looking for grants to fund a three-year study that focuses on what can best help kids from preschool through third grade learn healthy eating and exercise habits. Other studies have shown that this age group is a good target for intervention programs, Crane says, as kids are more focused on learning good habits than unlearning bad habits, unlike adults.

Crane believes that both children and adult participants could be more successful, however, if the program were longer and gradually eased them back into a life without twice-per-week workouts and nutrition classes. She would like to see a year-round program with an eight- to 12-week summer intensive course for participants. After the intensive course is finished, she explains, exercisers would continue meeting and exercising in groups similar to a fitness club.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine. To read a previous article about this program, visit Ohio University Medicine magazine.