Community-wide effort to fight childhood obesity shows promise

For immediate release: June 27, 2017

Key Takeaways:

  •  After a two-year comprehensive effort to reduce childhood obesity in two low-income communities in Massachusetts, the prevalence of obesity decreased among some schoolchildren; some students drank less sugar-sweetened beverages and more water; and some spent less time in front of screens.
  • Given the challenges inherent in implementing community-wide efforts to reduce childhood obesity, the changes observed in the study—although modest—suggest that such comprehensive approaches are promising.

Boston, MA – A large-scale effort to reduce childhood obesity in two low-income Massachusetts communities resulted in some modest improvements among schoolchildren over a relatively short period of time, suggesting that such a comprehensive approach holds promise for the future, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study, along with two others evaluating Massachusetts’ efforts to reduce childhood obesity, were published in the July 2017 issue of Obesity.

“While our results were modest, they were achieved over a relatively short period of time, which is important given the substantial challenges of implementing a large-scale community initiative to address obesity,” said Rebecca Franckle, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study.

Given obesity’s persistence as a public health issue in the U.S., researchers have looked increasingly at multisectoral, multilevel approaches to address the problem. The new study evaluated the effectiveness of one such project—the Massachusetts Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration Project (MA-CORD)—through which elementary and middle school students in two low-income Massachusetts communities received interventions from 2012-2014 aimed at reducing obesity and encouraging healthy behaviors, including eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking less sugar-sweetened beverages, increasing physical activity and sleep duration, and decreasing screen time. The project’s interventions were implemented across different sectors—including schools, after-school programs, and health centers—and ranged from the individual level, such as individual or family counseling, to the community level, such as providing physical activity equipment to schools.

The researchers compared the two communities that received the interventions with nine similar communities that didn’t receive it. They looked at changes in the prevalence of obesity among 1st, 4th, and 7th graders, starting from four years before the interventions began and at several points during their progression.

The results showed a modest but significant reduction of 2%-3% in obesity prevalence among 7th graders in one community compared to the control groups. In both intervention communities, 4th and 7th graders drank less sugar-sweetened beverages and more water. And students in one of the communities spent less time in front of screens.

Other Harvard Chan co-authors of the study included Steven Gortmaker, Jessica Barrett, Catherine Giles, Elsie Taveras, and senior author Kirsten Davison.

Funding for the study came from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (Award # U18DP003370), the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

“Student Obesity Prevalence and Behavioral Outcomes for the Massachusetts Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration Project,” Rebecca L. Franckle, Jennifer Falbe, Steven Gortmaker, Jessica L. Barrett, Catherine Giles, Claudia Ganter, Rachel E. Blaine, James Buszkiewicz, Elsie M. Taveras, Jo-Ann Kwass, Thomas Land, and Kirsten K. Davison, Obesity, June 27, 2017, doi: 10.1002/oby.21867

For more information:

Marge Dwyer
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health


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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan School teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.