From my Healthy Living column in Moncton’s Times & Transcript.

There is hope that the new generation will practice healthier habits, despite the statistics

In 2006, a seventh grade science teacher living in Martin County, North Carolina read an article in his local newspaper about a recent study that had formulated life expectancies for each of the counties of North Carolina. Mr. Hardison, who also happened to be my teacher at the time, decided that he needed to do something when he discovered that Martin County, also one of the poorest regions, had the shortest life expectancy in the entire state. This was due to a high rate of diabetes and obesity/overweight.

To solve the problem, Mr. Hardison, who has a background in exercise physiology, created a school program for seventh graders called MATCH:Motivating Adolescents with Technology to Choose Health. Four years later, MATCH is still running and expanding, Mr. Hardison works full-time on the project, and East Carolina University’s Pediatric Healthy Weight Treatment and Research Center at the Brody School of Medicine has been studying the MATCH. MATCH has also received grants from ECU and the BCBS Foundation.

In its first year, the program had a seventy percent success rate at decreasing the Body Mass Index (BMI) of its obese and overweight participants. When the participants were followed twelve months later, the success rate was nevertheless sixty-eight percent. The students’ BMI wasn’t the only number that improved—students in an at-risk math class passed the End Of Grade (EOG) math test for their grade with a higher rate of success compared to a control group and caused less discipline problems, despite the fact that they reduced their class time by a third.

Why was MATCH so effective? MATCH is teacher-designed, based on effective social cognitive theory (motivating students to do something and then teaching them), and aimed at students of the right age. MATCH both teaches students healthier habits and motivates them to practice them. The program, which is followed by all the seventh graders at each of the participating schools for a total of sixteen weeks, starts off each year with a fitness test and a measurement-taking session, done by the school nurse. The students then calculate their BMI and make realistic goals for themselves, to be met before the end of the program, when the students will take the fitness test and be measured once more.

In MATCH, teachers of all subjects teach the usual curriculum, but with the theme of health and wellness woven in. In language arts, students write essays on health topics; in science, students deepen their knowledge of the human body systems curriculum by focusing on nutrition and exercise; and in technology class, students create spreadsheets that calculate their daily caloric intake.

MATCH’s nutrition education (incorporated into science class), Mr. Hardison notes, is especially effective: ”In one school, we didn’t start the nutrition education until we were (several months into the program) and we didn’t see changes in BMI, even with exercise, until then.”

MATCH teaches students that ”food is fuel”. Mr. Hardison stresses the point that no child in the program is told that he is overweight or obese. Students simply learn their own numbers and how to interpret them themselves. An excess of body fat is simply regarded as an excess of calorie intake; a lack of body fat is simply regarded as a lack of calorie intake.

To aid the students in choosing health, the participating schools make room for fitness at lunchtime and at break time. Some teachers, such as the math teacher mentioned above, even take their students out for exercise during class time—and get more accomplished anyway. The situation also improved in the lunchroom—once fries were taken off the menu and students were encouraged to boost their fruit and vegetable intake, they ate 300% more fruit and vegetables than before.

However, the road to change is still bumpy. One of the biggest challenges Mr. Hardison has faced is having teachers cooperate with the program and not be lax with lesson delivery. Another issue was funding. A lack of funds recently resulted in fries being added to the menu once more.

The first year, Mr. Hardison funded MATCH himself and despite funding from other sources in later years, MATCH continues to operate on a ”shoestring budge”. As Mr. Hardison points out though, the Medicaid cost of an obese or overweight child is enormous compared to that of a normal weight child, making MATCH a very cost effective program.

Mr. Hardison is optimistic. He says, ”You can make healthy choices more readily available, but people won’t choose them until they realize ‘this is for me’.” That is what MATCH is helping kids realize.

To overcome the teacher participation challenge, Mr. Hardison, Dr. Suzanne Lazorick of ECU, and a website designer are in the midst of creating a MATCH website that will make it possible for the program to be launched essentially anywhere. Mr. Hardison says, ”We could go from five schools to five hundred schools.” The website, which should be launched sometime during the year, will offer online, curriculum, training, and videos. Of course, you can count on me as the Living Healthy columnist to notify you of the website’s address when it becomes available.

As a participant in the first-ever MATCH myself and as the record holder for the girls’ aerobic run and sit-up tests, I remember truly enjoying the MATCH activities, a far cry from lackluster gym class, and the health supplemented curriculum, which was a big factor in my deciding to study in health sciences. Mr. Hardison said it right: ”Students like MATCH because it’s fun.”

MATCH goes further than providing healthy choices for children; it motivates them to choose those healthy choices and simultaneously improves children’s academic scores. What a great idea for New Brunswick!

Originally published in the Times & Transcript on May 15th, 2010.

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