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Vol. LIX, No. 3
February 9, 2007

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‘We Can!’ Helps Communities, Families Prevent Childhood Obesity

More than three times as many children are overweight now than two decades ago. Why? The data suggest that they’re eating too much food that is high in calories and low in nutrition and spending too much time with TV and computers and not enough time on the playground.

The problem isn’t just about size. Being overweight puts kids at risk for chronic conditions throughout life such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments.

Last fall, more than 100 community leaders and others concerned about childhood obesity came to NIH to share strategies and explore opportunities designed to help families make healthy lifestyle choices. They were part of the first We Can! Rally—a 2-day workshop and celebration of a growing movement to improve the health outlook of our nation’s youth by preventing obesity. Rear Admiral Penelope Slade Royall, director, HHS Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, and Dr. Yvonne Maddox, deputy director of NICHD, opened the rally.

“We Can! is truly unique. It brings together what we have learned from years of NIH-funded research into practical resources for communities and parents to fight childhood obesity,” said Maddox. We Can!, or Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition, is a one-stop resource for parents and other caregivers to help children ages 8-13 maintain a healthy weight. It is a collaboration among four institutes: NHLBI, NIDDK, NICHD and NCI.

We Can! focuses on three key behaviors that families can adopt together: improving eating habits, increasing physical activity and reducing recreational “screen time”—time spent watching TV or playing video or computer games.

“It’s all about energy in and energy out. To maintain a healthy weight, we need to strike a balance between the amount and types of food we eat and the energy we burn up with activity,” said Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, NHLBI director. “When developing We Can! as a national education campaign, we found that community- based programs were eager for proven resources to share with families. So, four institutes have combined efforts to help communities make a difference.”

The resources provided through We Can! are proving popular among parents, caregivers, community leaders, teachers and children. When the program was launched in June 2005 by HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt and NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, 36 community sites had agreed to implement the program for 1 year. In just 18 months, the program has expanded to more than 126 communities in 34 U.S. states, Canada and the Philippines. These community-based organizations include park and recreation departments, health departments and coalitions, hospitals and schools. In addition, national partners such as other federal agencies, professional health societies, parenting and youth groups, media and other corporations are quickly becoming part of the movement.

“Kids learn healthy behaviors from their parents and from role models in their communities. Our research shows that lifestyle habits you develop as a child can influence whether you become obese as an adult,” said Zerhouni. “This is why it is so important to intervene early.”

At the recent We Can! Rally at Natcher Conference Center, NHLBI deputy director Dr. Susan Shurin, (seated, second from l) presented an Award of Excellence to 14 We Can! community sites to commemorate
their hard work and dedication during the first year of the program.

At the recent We Can! Rally at Natcher Conference Center, NHLBI deputy director Dr. Susan Shurin, (seated, second from l) presented an Award of Excellence to 14 We Can! community sites to commemorate their hard work and dedication during the first year of the program.

One tool to help parents and caregivers is We Can! Families Finding the Balance: A Parent Handbook, a new resource developed by NHLBI. Available in English and Spanish, the handbook offers practical tips to help families adopt healthier habits—and ways to make those behaviors stick. The handbook complements a 6-lesson curriculum for parents and caregivers offered in We Can! communities. Through pre- and post-test assessments of the curriculum, participants have reported that they improved eating habits of family members, increased the amount of physical activity and more strongly perceived the role they play in encouraging more physical activity by family members.

We Can! communities also host local events to involve new participants and more broadly promote health messages. For example, a site in Oregon organized a TV Turnoff week combined with community events focusing on We Can! messages and scheduled a Healthy Halloween event with healthy snacks and entertainment. A Georgia site involved children in making a We Can! fruit and vegetable float for a parade. Since the program launch, We Can! community sites have promoted the importance of a healthy weight in families and children at more than 60 events with over 125,000 attendees.

“Since its inception, We Can! has reached many parents and families with its messages about healthy eating and regular physical activity. We plan to continue on this path and expand the program to many more communities,” said Dr. Griffin Rodgers, acting NIDDK director. “We want to make sure that the health of our children and families remains a top priority.”

Other We Can! materials include a toolkit for community organizations and three tested curricula for children—CATCH Kids Club After School Program (the Child and Adolescent Trial for Cardiovascular Health, geared toward grades K-5); SMART (Student Media Awareness to Reduce Television, targeted for grades 3-4) and Media-Smart Youth (geared towards ages 11-13) developed by NICHD. Additional materials to encourage healthy eating or physical activity are also available from each of the collaborating institutes. Promotional items include a poster, wristbands for children and adults and a video featuring Zerhouni and other NIH leaders as well as We Can! site facilitators.

Information and materials can be accessed by calling toll-free 866-35-WE CAN (866-359-3226) or through the web site NIH Record Icon

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