Supporters of the Harvard School of Public Health hope to change how America's kids live, eat, and play, particularly in impoverished urban areas. In February, Harvard College alumna Penny Pritzker '81 and her husband, Bryan Traubert--the parents of two healthy, active adolescents--pledged $5 million to launch the rigorous scientific evaluation of an after-school exercise and nutrition program developed by HSPH researchers and piloted, since 2004, at YMCAs around the country. The Y is the single largest provider of after-school care for public school students in the United States. YMCAs serve nearly 400,000 school-age children each year, many of them from urban, low-income, and minority populations, in which obesity rates are rising fastest.
Pritzker and Traubert's gift will also create student scholarships
and a junior professorship in obesity-prevention oriented, fitness-promoting
research at HSPH. Collectively, the couple's efforts are known as
the Donald and Sue Pritzker Nutrition and Fitness Initiative, in honor
of Pritzker's parents.
HSPH's researchers aim to measure the impact on health of YMCA after-school programs by documenting physical, behavioral, and biological changes in kids over time. Changes in height and weight, energy expenditure and heart rate, blood pressure, food intake, diabetes risk factors, and other data will be recorded. Within approximately three years, the researchers will compare results in youngsters from participating YMCAs with results in a control group.
The YMCA is ideally positioned to bring about healthful changes in kids' and families' lives, according to project leader Jean Wiecha, a senior research scientist in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH. "The YMCAs have both the will and the infrastructure to make important changes that reach millions of people," she says, adding that the organization's reach is broad. About 9,000 YMCAs serve more than 20 million Americans in approximately 10,000 communities across the country.
HSPH's research team, which includes Gortmaker and Hu, will enroll 2,000 children from grades K-6 at YMCAs in up to 20 U.S. cities. The team will test a set of behavior-changing principles and activities derived from their successful middle-school curriculum Planet Health. Used by more than 100 Massachusetts schools, Planet Health has been proven to decrease obesity and eating disorders among girls. The obesity effect among girls appears to be due mainly to a reduction in television viewing, which was also noted in boys. Planet Health stresses four simple messages: reduce television viewing, increase fruit and vegetable intake, reduce intake of unhealthy fat, and increase physical activity.
Developed with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Planet Health was updated and retooled for the Y with a generous gift from another set of philanthropic-minded parents: Mary Finnegan and her husband, Paul, AB '75, MBA '82, a member of the HSPH Leadership Council. In choosing to fund this effort, the couple cited the School's "impressive ability to leverage its expertise for maximum impact" in the fight against childhood obesity.
The hope is that children and families who volunteer for the new YMCA research study will embrace healthier habits: Eat more fruits and vegetables, and less saturated and trans fats. Drink fewer sugar-sweetened drinks. Turn off the TV. And experience the joy of movement while burning calories.
Fitness has always been part of the YMCA's
credo--the sport of basketball
was invented and popularized through YMCAs by the late James Naismith,
a staff training director. The organization aims to "take it up a
becoming "a force to combat the epidemic of obesity in the United
to Lynne Vaughan, director of the Gulick Collaborative, an organizational
improvement effort focused on fitness and health, and named for a visionary
Y director who
championed physical health as vital to total well-being.
The gift from Pritzker, who for Harvard College co-chairs 25th Class Reunion Giving, and Traubert, a member of HSPH's Visiting Committee, will enable HSPH to seed the emerging field of obesity research with talented scholars. In addition to allocating $1 million of the total to scholarships over five years, the couple directed $1.5 million to a junior professorship, which will pass from one outstanding young faculty member to another, every three years. Recruited at the assistant and associate levels in disciplines from nutrition to social and behavioral sciences to biostatistics to laboratory science, these rising stars will work to slow and reverse the global rise in children's weight and a constellation of disorders known as the metabolic syndrome. (This syndrome, characterized by overweight and elevated blood pressure, blood sugars, and blood fats, carries a heightened risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.)
Says HSPH Dean Barry Bloom: "The childhood obesity problem in the U.S. is a growing epidemic, particularly among minorities and the socio-economically disadvantaged, whom YMCAs serve in significant numbers. We at Harvard are enormously gratified by our generous supporters' strong commitment to partnering with us in this effort."
Karin Kiewra is editor of
the Review and associate director of Development Communications at
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