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Waikato leads the way with child health programme

Sport Waikato and the Waikato District Health Board proudly celebrate the 10th anniversary of the child health initiative ‘Project Energize’ this year. Energize is a physical activity and healthy eating programme for schools that began when a number of educators, parents and community groups, alongside Sport Waikato approached the Waikato DHB about a project to improve child health. Following these discussions, in 2005, Energize started as a randomised control trial in 62 schools via significant funding from the Waikato District Health Board. Over the past 10 years growth and development of the programme has meant that Energize now supports all 242 primary and intermediate schools in the Waikato.

Community Paediatrician Dr David Graham says “the Waikato DHB should be commended on demonstrating great foresight investing in child health with Project Energize. Sport Waikato and the Waikato DHB are not only making positive change in the health of our children but Energize is seen internationally as a leader in children’s health programmes and with the ten year milestone it is the longest running programme of its kind.”

Energize aims to increase children’s physical activity, improve their nutrition and ultimately their overall health. The programme is for primary and intermediate schools and is delivered by Sport Waikato along with Maaori and Pacific Health Providers who employ the staff or ‘Energizers’. “In the Waikato we have 26 Energizers spread from Coromandel to Taumaranui” says Sport Waikato’s programme manager Stephanie McLennan. “Energizers live in the communities they are working in, they support their local schools with initiatives to get kids moving and eating better. They make being active fun and easy and support schools with healthy eating initiatives like healthy fundraisers. This year our Home Play Challenge with character cards was a big hit. Children love collecting cards and we create Waikato characters (like ProJoe who’s 10 years old and from Huntly) following our motto “eat healthy, be active, have fun”. You can see them all come to life in the “Energize 10 year video” on youtube.

Evaluation of Project Energize to date has shown it to be sustainable, cost effective and efficient as a childhood ‘health’ programme, and part of the answer to how to prevent obesity, starting with children. “From what we have seen and measured, Project Energize is really making a difference; it delivers measureable improvements in the health of Waikato children”, says Professor Elaine Rush, the project’s academic leader from Auckland University of Technology. Rush has been able to prove the programme has made a difference to the fitness of children in the age group. For instance, she introduced a new ‘fitness measure’ to participating schools to test the time it takes for primary school aged children to run 550 metres. She blind tested the measure against children from non-participating schools, and found that those who were participating in the programme ran the 550 metres in less time.

Following Waikato’s success, Energize is now delivered beyond the region. In New Zealand, Counties Manukau Sport and Sport Northland have delivered the programme. In Ireland the programme runs through the Cork Institute of Technology. This Irish equivalent of Energize called Project Spraoi (pronounced Spree), is part of CIT’s exercise and health research cluster. “We have masters and PhD students supporting the programme, once we saw a presentation of Energize we decided to use the best practice model and adapt it to an Irish setting. The response from the school community so far has been very encouraging,” Spraoi Project Manager Dr Con Burns said.

Project Energize has been so successful that the model is being trialled beyond the primary school setting. In 2014, “Under5 Energize” was introduced as a Ministry of Health funded pilot programme – again to the Waikato first. Sport Waikato in partnership with local early childhood centres, Maaori and Pacific health providers, began delivery of Under 5 Energize in four pilot areas – Hauraki/Thames, South Waikato, North Waikato and Hamilton.

Another programme based on the Energize model is Energized Practices, a 15 month pilot to selected medical centres. Energized Practices is a Ministry of Health innovations fund to support Green Prescription (GRx) diabetes innovation and best practice. The project targets practices with the greatest numbers of people with diabetes and where other risk factors are greatest. This project began in 2014 and is currently in its final stages of evaluation.

Where to now? Sport Waikato’s Energizer & Dietitian Milly Connell says there is still plenty of work to do. “As the external environment continues to make it challenging for child health – Project Energize is well placed to support schools and their communities to improve the health and wellbeing of our children. We must also thank schools for being part of the journey; it’s their support and ongoing commitment that makes this programme so successful.”

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