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Shaping Up Well

Shaping Up WellAccording to a new study, Tufts' Shape Up Somerville program is making strides in improving health for residents in one of the university's host communities.

Boston [05.14.07] In 2002, Tufts pediatric nutrition expert Christina Economos received a $1.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to explore a new tactic for combating the growing epidemic of childhood obesity: community intervention. A recent study in the journal Obesity indicates that progress is being made on that front in Somerville, one of Tufts' host communities and home to the Shape Up Somerville program.

"A lot of people making a few small changes added up to this huge thing," Economos, an assistant professor and New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, told The Wall Street Journal. The program and newly released study were recently featured on the paper's front page. "We couldn't go to the kids and say you have to change your lifestyle. We had to change the environment and the community spirit first."

News outlets such as Reuters, United Press International and NBC Nightly News also covered the study's results. [View MSNBC video on]

According to the Journal, Shape Up Somerville is the first program of its kind to use a community-based effort to combat childhood obesity. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone was, Economos told the Journal, a "sparkplug," giving a boost to the Tufts effort not just as a supporter, but also a participant.

"I bought into it right away because I could see the potential," Curtatone told the Journal. "We're here to improve the lives of everybody in the city."

Designed by Economos and other Tufts faculty, staff and students, and inspired by social change movements for issues such as seat belt usage, the program's goal is to help kids achieve healthier lifestyles through small but notable changes citywide. These include the addition of low-fat options to the menus of local eateries, making it easier for children to walk to school and adding fruit to school lunches, according to the Journal.

At the outset of the project, 44 percent of first-, second- and third-graders in the city of 78,000 had ranked as overweight or likely to become overweight, 14 percent higher than the national average, the article reported.

According to the study, Shape Up Somerville is on the right track. Somerville schoolchildren gained less weight in the 2003-04 school year than their peers in two comparable school districts, the Journal reported, with the program credited as preventing approximately one pound of extra weight gain among heavy-set children. According to Economos, this is significant.

"It could be the difference between graduating overweight and graduating at a normal weight," the Tufts nutrition expert told the Journal. "We need to think about how it plays out long term."

Members of the Tufts community working with Shape Up Somerville raised public awareness about healthy living through community outreach efforts, including a foot-race and pedometer giveaway, according to the Journal. They also designed a nutrition curriculum used by Somerville public school teachers and an after-school fitness program.

"Dr. Economos hopes Somerville's changes will be sustainable because they involve the entire community, not just the schools," the Journal observed.

The original grant has been supplemented by $1.5 million in additional funds obtained by Tufts researchers. New programs are being developed, such as fitness and nutrition programs for the city's firemen, the Journal reported. Also, Economos is now working with the Save the Children Foundation to see if some of the measures that have made Shape Up Somerville successful can work for kids in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and California's Central Valley.

As for the kids who are the main focus of these efforts, they're learning that good nutrition can pay off.

"I learned that eating the right foods helps you do things," Somerville sixth-grader Ruth Grossman told the Journal. "Eating a good meal before a test helps you focus better and last longer."

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