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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI arms PE teachers with tools and techniques to fight childhood obesity

Media Contact: Jhodi Redlich, 401-874-4500

KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 18, 2004 -As many Rhode Island schools pull unhealthy food selections off the shelves of their vending machines in hopes of curbing the problem of childhood obesity, University of Rhode Island Associate Professor Debra Ballinger has engaged scores of teachers statewide to join the fight from the fitness front.

The physical education teachers from 34 of Rhode Island's 37 school districts are being trained and armed with the tools to track their individual students' activity and fitness levels, and translate this information into personalized fitness plans through goal-setting. On Tuesday, March 23, 2004 about 30 teachers will attend the 14th free training workshop at Keaney Gym on the URI Kingston Campus. The session will be conducted by Ballinger's co-investigator and grant partner, Karen Castagno of Rhode Island College.

This program is funded by a new $450,000 (2003-04) grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, under the Carol M. White Physical Education for Progress (PEP) grant program, as a follow up to a $492,000 education grant received last year.

"Clearly, physical educators are united in their efforts to attack the obesity epidemic that has surpassed all other forms of preventable disease as the number one killer of Americans," said Ballinger. "The most recent statistics show that Rhode Island youth are above the national obesity levels for young male students, and at the level for female youth."

Ballinger said this trend follows a decline in daily physical activity levels in general and in time per week for physical education in schools, as reported in studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.

With the latest PEP grant, teachers are being provided with and trained to use pedometers and heart rate monitors to help students and teachers monitor daily physical activity levels. Teachers attending the workshops receive a pedometer package including educational materials
and 24 pedometers labeled "Rhode Island Walks," for use in their classes.

Those who enlist in the research option of the study are also provided heart rate monitors for middle, junior high and senior high school students. So far, more than 220 teachers have received the training since January and expect to begin work with their students in April.

Ballinger and former Rhode Island College Professor Richard E. Cain began this teacher training and research process last year with funding from an initial PEP grant (2002-03) that provided new equipment and other resources for teachers, including fitness and physical activity assessment software, educational lessons and texts, and the purchase of one computer for every two teachers participating from the same school district. Public schools have provided teacher release time and substitute teacher pay to support the efforts.

The goal of the training is to improve the quality of physical education programs and to provide earlier intervention in the fight against obesity and other preventable chronic diseases through increased physical activity and healthy eating behaviors.

Ballinger said future research goals include education and training on nutrition and software packages to help students make healthier dietary choices and portion control. She also aims to continue monitoring the effects of education and teacher training, student physical activity behaviors, and student physical fitness on obesity levels in Rhode Island children and youth.

To this end, Ballinger and colleagues from URI, RIC and other agencies and organizations are forming the "R.I. Partnership for a Leaner and Active Youth and Society," R.I. PLAYS, to combine resources and coordinate efforts in research and education on physical activity and nutrition for children, youth and families during the next three to five years. In addition to URI and RIC faculty, the RI PLAYS partnership includes Rhode Island public school teachers, the Rhode Island Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, the Rhode Island departments of Education and Health, the R.I. branch of the American Cancer Society, the R.I. Heart Association, and the National Center on Public Education and Social Policy.

Teachers interested in participating in this new partnership should contact Debra Ballinger, coordinating faculty member for R.I. PLAYS. Ballinger can be reached at 874-5440.