Cheryl Howe’s work is child’s play—literally. For more than 15 years, the CHSP associate professor of exercise physiology has studied the effects of physical activity on children’s health and wellbeing. Her interests led to her doctoral research at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on the enjoyment level and energy expended during various children’s games, and she continues to study the efficacy of various physical activities on child obesity and general health.
Howe, who hails from Canada, attended Lake Superior State University in Michigan, where she graduated in 1992 with a B.S. in exercise science with a concentration in athletic training. She went on to earn a M.S. from Ball State University in pediatric exercise physiology in 1994 and that—along with a six-year stint as research coordinator for Georgia Prevention Institute’s Apex Study, an NIH grant-funded afterschool intervention program for third-through-fifth graders—solidified Howe’s interest in how exercise and physical activity affect children’s overall health.
Her doctoral work in kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst led to a working relationship with Pierre Rouzier, M.D., a UMass family physician and researcher, who contacted Howe in 2011 about idea he had for a children’s health and wellness program based on a book he had just written called “Henry Gets Moving!”
Howe accepted the challenge, and she and CHSP exercise physiology graduate student Kim Clevenger created “Teaching HENRY (Health Exercise and Nutrition Recommendations for Youth),” eight lessons based on the book, and began testing them—first through CHSP’s Kids on Campus, then in local elementary schools. Teaching HENRY resulted in statistically significant changes in knowledge and behavior in terms of healthy nutrition and physical activity choices in first-through-third graders.
“The kids love Henry,” Howe said, pointing to the fuzzy yellow stuffed hamster who sits on the shelf with his friend Jasmine. “These two have been to conferences, Kidfest and to many different schools—they travel as much as I do.”
Howe’s research into organized play activities naturally led her to question what was happening during recess, when children are free to choose what they play. So in addition to Teaching HENRY and her research into organized play, Howe is assessing the enjoyment level and energy costs of “free play,” as well as where children are being physically active in the school playground during recess.
She and her research team conducted a pilot study last year using GPS accelerometry, video capture, and activity trackers (accelerometers) to measure children’s location, interaction, and energy expenditure on the playground, with data correlated to map their play patterns and energy consumption. Howe is working with Ohio University’s Voinovich Center, the School of Media Arts and Study, the Department of eography, and the Avionics Center to coordinate the technical aspects of the study, and she has applied for a National Institutes of Health R21 exploratory grant, which if approved, will fund research at several elementary schools in Athens and surrounding counties.
“Fewer than 25 percent of elementary schools require daily recess, yet we know how important physical activity is for these kids,” Howe said. “With this study, we hope to measure their patterns of play in a way that might allow us to design playgrounds around the most effective and enjoyable activities.”