YMCA of the USA/HSPH initiative in afterschool programs increases physical activity levels in youth

April 20, 2012

A Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) youth fitness and nutrition initiative conducted with the YMCA of the USA was found to effectively boost physical activity levels and time spent doing moderate and vigorous exercise among children 5-11 years of age enrolled in afterschool programs at YMCAs in four U.S. metropolitan areas, according to a paper published in the March 2012 print issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Children in the Y afterschool programs implementing the intervention showed improvements in physical activity levels with an additional 10 minutes each day of overall physical activity and an additional five minutes each day of vigorous physical activity compared to youngsters in control programs, said senior author Steven Gortmaker, professor of the practice of health sociology at HSPH and director of the HSPH Prevention Research Center.

In this evaluation, Gortmaker and his colleagues evaluated the impact of the intervention at 16 YMCAs and 16 YMCA program controls. Staff set goals for health promotion at their sites and used an evidence based curriculum called Food and Fun After School (www.foodandfun.org) to connect with families and help children develop healthy habits. The intervention was directed to all children attending the afterschool programs, not just those who were overweight. The children’s progress was tracked over five days using an electronic device called an accelerometer that tracked their activity levels.

“This study shows evidence for the impact of afterschool environmental change efforts on increases in youth physical activity. Our research team is currently working with our partners at the YMCA to disseminate these results and looking forward to further evaluation work in younger children. These results indicate the sort of sustainable change we need to see to improve youth fitness in the United States,” said Gortmaker.

“These results are further proof that intentional efforts to create healthy environments in these settings really work and can have a real impact on children and their families,” said YMCA of the USA Chief Executive Officer and President Neil Nicoll. “The Y is making a significant commitment to help improve the health of our nation’s children with new standards for healthy eating and physical activity in our early childcare and afterschool programs.”

The guidelines used in the evaluation call for:

  • including 30 minutes of moderate, fun, physical activity for every child every day;
  • offering 20 minutes of vigorous, fun, physical activity as an option three times each week;
  • not including commercial broadcast television or movies;
  • limiting program computer time to less than one hour per day;
  • offering water as the primary drink every day, avoiding sugar sweetened drinks, and serving only healthy snacks

The authors note that these findings are the first to demonstrate increases in physical activity levels as a result of a sustained multi-site afterschool intervention set in existing out-of-school time programs. The results reflect the impact of an intervention delivered in the field by afterschool staff. Moreover, the impact of these findings are particularly promising given the potential reach of the intervention across 10,000 U.S. YMCA childcare and afterschool sites as well as recent estimates that over 8.4 million U.S. children are enrolled in afterschool programming. The YMCA has recently pledged a commitment to nutrition and physical activity standards in Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America initiative.

Obesity among children has increased rapidly over the past two decades in the United States. Lack of physical activity plays a key role in this increasing prevalence of obesity, according to the authors. Furthermore, children obtaining the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans of at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day can expect to have better cardiovascular health, say the authors.

“Impact of an After-school Intervention on Increases in Children’s Physical Activity,” Gortmaker, Steven L.; Lee, Rebekka M.; Mozaffarian, Rebecca S.; Sobol, Arthur M.; Nelson, Toben F.; Roth, Barbara A.; Wiecha, Jean L., Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: March 2012.

This study was supported by the Donald and Sue Pritzker Nutrition and Fitness Initiative and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Prevention Research Centers Grant U48DP001946 and U48DP000064).

–Marge Dwyer

Photo: iStockphoto/Christopher Futcher