Wilson County Program Targets Childhood Obesity

Jun 9, 2017

An estimated 1 in 10 North Carolina adults have been diagnosed with diabetes.  The condition is the 7th leading cause of death in our state.  It’s statistics like these that prompted an innovative program in Wilson County that aims to curb high diabetes and obesity rates with early intervention.  Chris Thomas has more on MATCH Wellness, an interdisciplinary program empowering adolescents to make healthy decisions.  

It’s the end of the year at Springfield Middle School in Wilson County.  Students are running the “Pacer” Test – an analysis of their endurance and speed – jogging up and down the school’s basketball court until they’re physically spent.  Today’s activity is part of a program designed to teach students of the pitfalls of an unhealthy lifestyle.

“You look at a deck of cards – a deck of cards is what a portion of meat is supposed to be…”

Katherine Alphin teaches PE at Springfield.

“…But what do we do? We get a big ol’ ribeye steak and, you know, those pieces of meat are so big and so we constantly eat meat and I think the portion control is what’s hard.”

Developing good habits now can help stave off the corrosive impacts of sedentary lifestyles – including type two diabetes, which is one of several, major public health issues the eastern North Carolina is facing.

“The reality is the eastern part of the state is one of the sickest areas of the country.”

Dr. Suzanne Lazorick is associate professor of pediatrics and public health at East Carolina University. She said if eastern North Carolina were a state in it of itself, it would rank at or near the top for high rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

“For children also, that means they’re growing up in an environment with many, many adults who face these chronic issues and childhood obesity is no exception. In eastern North Carolina, half of the children are either obese or overweight.”

Wilson County is one of 30 North Carolina counties in the CDC designated “Diabetes Belt.” It encompasses 644 counties across the country, all of which are below of the Mason-Dixon Line, where the likelihood of developing type two diabetes is highest in the U.S.  A variety of factors contribute to these high rates – from lifestyle choices...

“Too much of things that have too many calories and not being active enough and those over time have become behaviors, really, all over the country but in rural areas that can be worse.”

…To things out of a person’s control, especially children.  

“Disease tend to run in families. There are cultural issues but there are also genetic issues so any ethnic group or racial group that has higher rates of diabetes just in their gene pool like Hispanic populations or African-American populations – particularly African-Americn – (have) higher populations around here as well.

Many North Carolina counties in the diabetes belt – including Halifax, Edgecombe, Lenoir, and Nash – are clustered around the northeastern corner of the state. Counties in the belt tend to have life expectancies below the state average of 78 years and have mainly minority populations.

“The arteries in African-Americans in general have less of an ability to dilate appropriately. They don’t create or secrete as much of this molecule called nitric oxide.”

Dr. Damon Swift is a kinesiologist at East Carolina University. He also said the bodies of black people tend to be more insulin resistant. But a factor Swift says is often neglected across the board is physical fitness.   

Making a physical and academic connection to reduce the risk of diabetes and other disease is one of the main goals of the MATCH Program – which stands for “Moving Adolescents with Technology to Choose Health.”  MATCH – which is in schools in North Carolina and Mississippi – is incorporated into the standard curriculum for seventh graders.  ECU Researcher Suzanne Lazorick explains.

“Basically, the MATCH lessons walk the child through the content of ‘what is obesity and why it is important,’ ‘what behaviors lead to obesity.’ Then they get a chance to assess their own behaviors and see their own habits and set goals to change those behaviors. And so basically those key concepts are repeated and applied through different classes over the course of several months and with the hope to improve their motivation to change these behaviors as well.”    

Tools include using a pedometer to track the number of steps they take from day-to-day and spreadsheets to keep track of them, while also learning how to use software like Microsoft Excel.  The program was conceived in Martin County by a physical education teacher, Tim Hardison. The county is also part of the diabetes belt and when it was first implemented in 2006, it had the shortest life expectancy in North Carolina.  Lazorick said the program can even be used to teach non-traditional classroom lessons like how to balance a checkbook while also tracking calorie intake.  

“Calories in is a deposit – or what you would save – and calories out is what you would expend or burn off with physical activity and so the child can learn about that concept of a bank or a checkbook but using their own body as the metaphor, so to speak.”

This is the first year it’s been used at Springfield Middle School. Katherine Alphin said it helps pinpoint particular struggles individual students may have by keeping track of their height and weight along with endurance tests like the pacer.

“And the height and weight has been a huge eye opener because I’ve seen some of the students lose from the beginning to the end of the year and they get so excited...”

She said she enjoys the program in part because it gives her more opportunities to engage her students one-on-one.

“I’m able to pull them to the side and just kind of talk to them about…do you have a plan? What’s been going on?.”

After 10 years, Lazorick says the program has reached more than 15,000 adolescents in 46 schools.  One of those students is Seventh Grader Lexi Bailey.

“Well, sometimes it can be difficult but most of the time it’s easy to do.”

CT: what are some of the difficult aspects of it?

“Well, when you have to try and find the answers, it’s kind of hard to, like math problems on it and stuff. It gets kind of hard.”

Lexi is from Sims in Wilson County.

“Like finding the percent of food you eat per day. I guess it gets pretty hard.”

According to Lazorick, about 15 percent of the students reached by the program have improved to a healthier weight category – with an estimated 1,500 students avoiding obesity.  I’m Chris Thomas.