As West Virginia’s childhood obesity rates continue to rank among the highest in the nation, groups at West Virginia University are taking decisive action to encourage physical activity and healthy eating through the West Virginia Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities (CARDIAC) Project.
CARDIAC school-based screenings performed in 26 West Virginia counties during the 2022–23 school year found 32 percent of kindergarteners, 40 percent of second graders and 49.6 percent of fifth graders were either overweight or obese (according to Centers for Disease Control parameters). Evidence for the risk of pre-diabetes was found in 3.2 percent of kindergarteners, 5.6 percent of second graders and 8 percent of fifth graders.
“These numbers are undeniably concerning and reflect the ongoing challenges that demand the attention of all involved in a child’s life – especially parents and caregivers, healthcare providers, educators and policymakers,” said Eloise Elliott, Co-Director of the WV Cardiac Project and Ware Distinguished Professor in the College of Applied Human Sciences. “Our team is committed to implementing comprehensive initiatives that prioritize physical activity, nutrition education, and overall wellness.”
A new report from Trust for America’s Health, "The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America 2022," shows West Virginia's rate of overweight children ranks among the highest in the nation — hovering at nearly 22 percent, while the national average stands at 16.2 percent.
Multiple groups at West Virginia University are working collaboratively to reduce obesity among West Virginia youth. Nutrition educators from the WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program serve as community leaders in schools to educate students and their families on the importance of good nutrition and physical activity. Faculty in the WVU College of Applied Human Sciences contribute their expertise to the development and dissemination of school- and family-based educational resources.
The WV CARDIAC Project implements various interventions focused on cultivating healthy lifestyles and nurturing a culture of well-being. One such initiative, Active Academics, empowers educators to infuse physical activity seamlessly into their curriculum. Furthermore, the Active Academics® Professional Development Training Module equips teachers, administrators, and program coordinators with the tools to promote physical activity among youth.
"People think of obesity as a disease that happens because of bad choices related to nutrition and physical activity, but really it is the environment we live in that is the problem. Issues like poverty and the fact that we are a rural state play just as much a role,” WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program Public Health Specialist and Assistant Professor Kristin McCartney said. “By bringing diverse partners together from the clinical, community, education and agriculture sector, we can make sustainable changes that can reduce our numbers. But big changes like that take time.”
Another resource, WV Healthy Kids, presents free online lessons targeting physical activity, nutrition, and overall health for fifth to eighth graders. Launched in 2021 in response to the pandemic's challenges, WV Healthy Kids offers an adaptable and effective resource for teachers and learners alike.
The WV CARDIAC Project is administered through a partnership between the WVU School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, the College of Applied Human Sciences and WVU Extension. The CAHS Center for ActiveWV oversees project implementation and evaluation. The WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program staff conduct many of the screenings in schools.
In the 2022-23 academic year, students across three grades in 26 counties in West Virginia were screened for weight, height and body mass index. Screeners also checked for acanthosis nigricans, a darkening of the skin that is linked to insulin resistance and diabetes risk, by looking at the back of students’ necks. In certain counties, additional screenings assessed students’ blood pressure and lifestyle behaviors.
The WV CARDIAC Project plans to expand to additional counties in the 2023-24 school year.