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NHLBI Launches 'Hearts N' Parks' Program

By Susan Sagusti

On the Front Page...

The NHLBI Obesity Education Initiative recently launched a national, community-based program in collaboration with the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Called Hearts N' Parks, the program aims to help reduce the growing trend of obesity in the United States by encouraging Americans of all ages to engage in regular physical activity, to follow a heart-healthy eating plan and to aim for a healthy weight.


"About 300,000 Americans die every year because of physical inactivity and poor nutrition," said U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher at a recent news conference. He added that these behaviors "are second only to smoking as leading causes of death." Overweight and obese individuals are at increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, some forms of cancer and other serious conditions.

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher (second from r) and NHLBI director Dr. Claude Lenfant (r) thank Olympic skater Michael Weiss and Arlington County Board Chair Barbara Favola for participating in the recent Hearts N' Parks program launch.

The problem appears to be worsening. Over the past two decades, the numbers of overweight children and adolescents, as well as obese adults in the United States have doubled. Approximately 97 million adults, or 55 percent, are currently overweight or obese. In addition, one in five children over the age of 6 is considered overweight.

Satcher commented that reducing the prevalence of overweight and obesity is not just an individual responsibility. "It's also a community responsibility," he said. "It's a community responsibility to make sure that children develop healthy lifestyles and develop lifetime habits of physical activity."

NHLBI director Dr. Claude Lenfant moderated the news conference, which welcomed the first D.C.-area Hearts N' Parks program and kicked off the national effort. To successfully change the growing numbers of overweight and obese individuals, he said, "there must be a partnership between branches of the government, businesses and community groups."

Exemplifying the spirit of partnerships, the day-long event was hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington, Va., and cosponsored by the Arlington County department of parks, recreation, and community resources, the latest organization to establish a Hearts N' Parks community. Among the businesses and organizations participating in the launch were the Arlington branch of Fresh Fields, the American Heart Association, Arlington County 4-H and Cooperative Extension Service, Arlington Hospital, sports teams from two local universities and the U.S. Tennis Association.

Individuals from ages 5 to 85 participated in activities such as healthy snacks cooking demonstrations; jump rope and relay race competitions; volleyball, tennis and race-walking clinics; and blood pressure screenings. Members of the seniors' group the Merry Makers entertained passersby inside the community center with song and dance.

Hearts N' Parks targets both young and old. "People of all ages need to be physically active and concerned about good diets," Satcher commented. "We know, for example, that older people who are physically active are less likely to fall, to be depressed [or] to suffer heart disease and other forms of illness. And, they are able to deal more effectively with stress."

Olympic champion figure skater Michael Weiss urged parents to teach their children to lead active lives. "Parents have a huge influence on their kids," he said. The father of two young children, Weiss described how his mother takes his 91-year-old grandfather to a local gym several days a week. "My grandfather had a great influence on my parents, my parents had a great influence on me, and I plan on continuing that tradition with my continue the cycle right on through to their kids."

Plus, he said, "A healthy lifestyle is a fun lifestyle."

"This is the first nationally disseminated health promotion initiative through parks and recreation facilities that will focus on documenting and measuring the impact that a local, health-based initiative can have on improving the health and well-being of the community," said Alice Conkey, NRPA president-elect.

Arlington County jump ropers help launch the NHLBI's Hearts N' Parks program.

Hearts N' Parks is based on scientific information about lifestyle choices known to lower the risk of heart disease and proven skill-building activities for adopting heart-healthy behaviors. The initiative provides training and resources, including a Community Mobilization Guide for staff of recreation and park departments and other community organizations to help them develop new activities or integrate them into existing programs.

The program was first piloted in 1999 by more than 2,000 participants in 33 North Carolina sites. An evaluation showed that these participants retained information about heart-healthy behaviors and intended to eat healthier. In addition, children reported learning new physical activities and improving their performance in others; seniors reported feeling healthier and experiencing less pain in their daily lives by the end of the program.

NHLBI and NRPA expect the national effort to be far-reaching: according to NRPA, 192 million people visit recreation and park facilities each year, and 75 percent of Americans live within a 2-mile walking distance of a public park. Facilities are widely accessible to individuals from culturally and socioeconomically diverse populations, as well as to persons with disabilities.

In the next few years, 500 Hearts N' Parks communities are expected to be established nationwide. To date, Hearts N' Parks has attracted the interest of nearly 90 recreation and park agencies in more than 35 states.

The Hearts N' Parks partnership will be announced at NRPA's annual congress and exposition, Oct. 11-14 in Phoenix, where a Hearts N' Parks training program will be offered for park and recreational staff. The conference is expected to attract 5,000 participants. For more information about Hearts N' Parks, visit http://www.nhlbi.nih. gov/health/prof/heart/obesity/hrt_n_pk/index.htm, or contact Karen Donato, coordinator of the NHLBI Obesity Education Initiative, 496-1051.

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