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Healthier Lifestyles

By Mario A. Montes

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Healthy Lifestyles Books

NMSU study encourages fifth-graders, parents to take steps to Grow Up Healthy – Grow Up Smart

No constructive argument can be made against the importance of a parent’s involvement in all aspects of their child’s development. Additionally, parental involvement in making healthy choices in diet, exercise, sexual behavior, smoking and drugs can only lead to a child “Growing Up Healthy and Growing Up Smart.”

It is this research theory of growing up healthy and growing up smart that New Mexico State University Professor Michael Young employed in examining the effects of a take-home, parent-child, health education program on positive student health outcomes. Young is the associate department chair for the Department of Health Science and the associate dean for research in the College of Health and Social Services. The program Young developed was implemented at six Las Cruces elementary schools, and involved fifth-graders and their parents.

The annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and other national studies show an alarming increase in childhood obesity. These results, and similar results from other studies, have prompted concerns regarding increased childhood health problems and future increases in chronic health conditions among adults. The NHNES – a program of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – found dramatic increases in obesity (among 6- to 11-year-olds) from 1976-2006. The National Institute on Drug Abuse also has reported the results from several studies concerned with the prevention of drug abuse. Many of these studies refer back to the person’s developmental years or their childhood. One prevention recommendation that is made repeatedly is increased parental involvement.

Numerous research studies have made it clear, parental involvement is a major factor in helping a child in growing up, both healthy and smart. Actually getting parents, particularly parents of children in identifiable high-risk groups, included in educational efforts to help their children develop healthy habits, is not an easy task. This is the problem addressed in Young’s research.

“When parents do become involved in such programs,” Young said, “they are rarely the parents of children who are at highest risk. Thus, seeking ways to involve a high percentage of parents, including parents of high-risk children, seems to be an important undertaking.” Previous research has shown that health education efforts with parents who are engaged in the process do have a positive impact on children. Research has also shown that parents prefer alternative educational approaches, such as printed materials than can be completed at home rather than attending formal classes.

For the “Growing Up Healthy – Growing Up Smart” study, Young prepared four take-home lessons/activity books and four student incentives. The activity books are:

  1. We choose to be active and fit: Making smart decisions about exercise and physical fitness;
  2. We choose to eat healthy: Making smart decisions about eating and weight control;
  3. We choose to be heart healthy: Making smart decisions about cardiovascular and emotional health;
  4. We choose to grow up healthy and smart: Making smart decision about health, life, and our future.

Here’s how the program works. Students take the activity books home and complete the activities with a parent or guardian. The books contain a series of activities that include answering simple questions about the material presented, listing reasons to engage in positive health behaviors, and the best ways to avoid negative health behaviors. The activity books also include a contract to participate in positive health behaviors and avoid the negative ones. A parent signature sheet is included to confirm that the students and parents completed the activity book. Students who showed the signed sheet to their classroom teacher received the incentive for that week: a Growing Up Healthy – Growing Up Smart bumper sticker, bookmark, pencil, or stick-on tattoo.

“One of the goals of the program is to facilitate parent-child discussion about various health behaviors,” Young said. “We believe that increased discussion of these topics will produce positive changes in health attitudes and behaviors.”

Parental permissions were not needed for program participation, but permission was needed for participation in the data-collection aspect of the program. To encourage students to take the permission forms home, secure a parent signature, and bring the signed permission form back to school, a larger incentive was offered. All students bringing back a signed permission form – even if the parent signed denying permission – were entered into a drawing for a $100 gift card from a local book store. A separate drawing was conducted for each classroom. Even with the incentive, securing signed permission forms was not easy.

The evaluation design used a pretest, post test, and student and parent questionnaires. The questions addressed health knowledge, attitudes, behavior and behavior intent. Some of the health behaviors that were addressed included exercise, positive self-talk, positive action, healthy eating, cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, using other illegal drugs, having sexual intercourse, and participating in other sexual activity. The parents’ questionnaire addressed a number of issues, including: communication with their child about health topics, perception of the health behaviors in which young teenagers engage, the ability of their child to resist pressure to engage in negative health behaviors, and their perception of the likelihood that their child will engage in negative health behaviors when he/she is a young teen.

“Complete and matching pretest and posttest data were obtained from 149 students,” Young said. “Of this number, 77 were in the intervention group and the remaining 72 were in the control group.”

The results showed “statistically significant changes from pretest to posttest” in favor of the intervention group, Young said. Students who participated in the Growing Up Healthy-Growing Up Smart program were found to be more likely to plan to do things to improve their heart health, more likely to decrease their frequency of cigarette smoking, more likely to begin or continue an effort to develop healthy eating habits, and students in this group were less likely to begin or continue drinking alcohol before finishing high school.

“The positive results are encouraging and support the idea of providing health education programming via a parent-child take-home program,” Young said. “We plan to seek funding to extend the program to additional students and to conduct a long-term follow-up.”

A sidebar to this study, and sort of a bonus to the project, were the results obtained from the parents’ questionnaires. A clear indicator emerged from the questionnaire results that while parents might visit with their children about some health topics, the vast majority of the parents, whether male or female, Hispanic or non-Hispanic, did not talk to their children about sex. Yet, 57 percent of the parents believed that “most young teens (ages 13 and 14) are having sexual intercourse,” and a greater number, 65 percent, agreed “most young teens are doing other sexual activities.” At the same time, 91 percent indicated their child “could say ‘no’ to pressure from a friend or friends to have sex,” and would not have sex when he/she was a young teen.

Young indicated that the results showed that parents “expected their children could resist pressure to have sex and believed it unlikely that their child would have sex as a young teen, even though no parent-child discussion about sex was taking place. These results have implications for program planners who want to encourage parent-child discussions concerning sexuality.”

The Growing Up Healthy – Growing Up Smart project has been highlighted at the annual meetings of the American School Health Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and the American Association for Health Education. In the fall of 2009, Young gave a presentation about the program’s results at the annual meeting of the American School Health Association. An additional paper on parent-child communication about sex will be presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. A manuscript about the project is in progress.

Young has conducted a number of other projects related to sexuality issues, drug education and adolescent health. He has published more than 100 articles in national/international scholarly journals and received a number of awards and recognitions. In February, he will give the Scholar Lecture for the Southwest District of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance at the District meeting in Santa Fe. In March, he will give the alliance’s Research Consortium Scholar Lecture at the national meeting in Indianapolis.

For more information about the project and its results, please contact Young at myoung@nmsu.edu or call (575) 646-3526.


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