Researchers discover obesity program misses target

Mikaela Cannizzo

UT researchers discovered a $37 million grant program failed in its efforts to reduce obesity rates among middle school students throughout the state.

In the largest study of a physical education program ever performed in Texas, researchers Paul von Hippel and Kyle Bradbury documented their investigation in Preventive Medicine, a peer-review journal, according to a press release.

Texas Fitness Now, the grant program provided by the State of Texas, supported low-income middle schools between 2007 and 2011. According to the report, schools used most of the money to buy fitness and sports equipment.

However, an increase in research has proven physical education programs unsuccessful when they focus solely on exercise and fail to include dietary changes, according to the press release.

Von Hippel, assistant professor of public affairs and researcher on the study, said he believes the schools’ budgets would have been adequate to make a change in the obesity problem, but the money wasn’t spent in the most effective way.

“It is not enough to just spend money,” von Hippel said. “There has to be a very specific plan for how that is going to translate in the form of an evidence-based program.”
Texas Fitness Now originally required 25 percent of grant funds to be spent on nutrition at each school. This requirement was never enforced — the University of Texas article reported only 7 percent of funds were spent on nutrition throughout 2009 and 2010.

Although the goal to reduce obesity was not visibly met, the research found Texas Fitness Now increased fitness in the participating schools.

“While the results may not be what we all would have hoped for, many middle schools in some of the poorest areas of our state were able to acquire needed fitness equipment,” the Texas Education Agency said in a statement.

Becky Pastner, program officer for healthy living at St. David’s Foundation, which contributed $25,000 to the research, said she hoped the study would help inform the foundation on how to best fight childhood obesity.

“We decided to fund the study to further our knowledge and the community’s knowledge about what works to most effectively combat childhood obesity,” Pastner said.

And despite debate regarding physical education and its implications, organizations such as the American Heart Association and the Institute of Medicine said in the press release that programs such as Texas Fitness Now have the potential to reduce obesity in children.
Texas Fitness Now was terminated in 2011 because of state budget cuts. The study reported no adverse effects on children’s health following the end of this program.