Thousands of Waikato school children involved in a regional health programme are fitter and healthier than their national counterparts according to one of the largest child health evaluations ever undertaken in New Zealand.
The region-wide health initiative Project Energize, funded by Waikato District Health Board and involving partnerships with Māori and Pacific health providers and universities, was introduced into Waikato primary and intermediate schools in 2005. Currently it reaches 44,000 children approximately 10% of the primary school population of New Zealand.
Now, 27 “Energizers”, like Petrina Hunter (pictured), are working with schools to advise teachers and parents on physical activity and nutrition and to help implement fitness programmes.
A major evaluation of the programme has found Project Energize children are doing significantly better on a range of health measures compared to a range of ‘control’ groups and data collected from national child health surveys between 2001 and 2007.
Gains were seen for all population groups; inequalities by decile and ethnicity are being reduced but still exist.
The 5110 6 to 11 year olds from 192 Waikato primary schools taking part in Project Energize were measured for body size, fitness and attitude to diet. The evaluation found:
- Obesity rates at 3% less than the national average
- Children weighed less and had a lower body mass index than Waikato children of the same age measured in 2004 and 2006 Waist measurements were substantially less than those measured in Waikato children of the same age measured in 2004 and 2006
- Ran 20 seconds (13%) faster compared to national data gathered for the same age groups between 2001 and 2007
A key feature of the study was the more than 3000 questionnaires returned by parents and whānau of children showed 67% and 76% believed their children’s nutrition and fitness had improved as a result of the programme. As well, 78% of schools reported increased quality of daily fitness.
Waikato District Health Board paediatrician Dr David Graham said while Project Energize would continue to be evaluated, these early findings could point to a generational change in behaviour and attitude in 6 to 11 year olds that took part.
“We need to continue our research to confirm Project Energize is actually making a difference long-term but certainly these results are heartening,” he said.
“The increased levels of fitness found in Project Energize children provides real evidence the programme is having a significant impact.”
Researcher and one of the report’s lead authors, AUT University’s Professor of Nutrition, Elaine Rush, said the change in nutrition and fitness as a result of Project Energize would have significant benefits in the coming decades.
“Within another decade or so these children are going to be parents themselves so if we have achieved changes in attitude to health and fitness, we may achieve real generational change and that is a very exciting prospect.”
Considering the wider obesogenic and economic environment, the continuation of the Energize ‘be active, eat healthy, have fun’ through-school programme will continue to be essential to create supportive environments for children and teachers, particularly for those in lower socio-economic areas.
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