Academics and Research / News

DU works to improve children’s health in rural Colorado

Administrators, principals and physical education teachers from the San Luis Valley's 14 school districts learn about instructional strategies at a professional development workshop at the Alamosa Recreation Center as part of the "Healthy Eaters, Lifelong Movers" project.

DU’s Morgridge College of Education is part of a project aimed at improving children’s health in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and other rural communities in the state.

The project, “Healthy Eaters, Lifelong Movers” (HELM), will increase student access to healthy meals, physical activity opportunities and quality physical education. DU is partnering with the Colorado School of Public Health’s Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center on the implementation of the HELM project, which is estimated to reach more than 11,200 elementary, middle and high school students by the grant’s end in October 2013.

The partnership received a $1.8 million grant in October 2010 from the Colorado Health Foundation, which says Colorado is one of the leanest states for adults in the nation but ranks 23rd out of 50 for childhood obesity. The project is designed to reverse this trend and encourage healthy habits. 

Nick Cutforth, a DU professor of research methods and statistics and former physical education teacher, and Elaine Belansky, an assistant professor of community and behavioral health at the University of Colorado-Denver, are lead project designers on the effort. The staff also includes a San Luis Valley-based project director and three site coordinators.

“I taught physical education for 10 years in England, Chicago and Denver,” Cutforth says. “Physical education has always been close to my heart. This program combines physical education with my interest in community-based research — it brings together those two strands of my work.”

The funding includes support for one Morgridge doctoral student who will assist the project director with field research in the San Luis Valley and eastern Colorado. Other opportunities for graduate students — including assistantships, internships and practicums — are likely to arise during the project. Cutforth anticipates bringing doctoral students into the field by fall 2011.

Facilitators will be hired to work with schools to address policies, practices and environmental features that contribute to the area’s health issues using a 12-step process called Adapted Intervention Mapping (AIM), which Belansky says is a tool for school health teams to assess, implement and sustain strategies to increase access to nutritious foods and physical activity.

The San Luis Valley Physical Education Academy will reinforce AIM by providing physical education teachers with workshops, equipment and on-site mentoring to deliver more evidence-based physical education programs. 

During the first year of the project, the research team will begin work with 19 elementary schools in the San Luis Valley and 10 elementary schools in Eastern Colorado. They will expand the program to middle and high schools spanning 14 school districts in the San Luis Valley in winter 2012. By 2013, the project will have reached 57 schools across both regions.

“During this period, we will work with the schools to increase the quality of physical education as well as opportunities for physical activity and health eating. Sustaining these increases is a crucial part of the program,” Cutforth says.

Cutforth, who has worked in the San Luis Valley for five years, says the Colorado Health Foundation encouraged program staff to include eastern Colorado as part of the grant. The area is underserved and lacks resources, according to Cutforth.

“We’ve been working closely with educators in the San Luis Valley to plan this project. In the end, we’re hoping schools will increase opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating.  We want students to love being active and establish a habit of lifelong activity,” says Belansky, who also serves as associate director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center.

“For 18 months we engaged San Luis Valley teachers, principals and superintendents in a planning process to answer the question, ‘What would it take to improve the quality of physical education in the San Luis Valley?’ and are delighted that the Colorado Health Foundation has recognized our efforts to work with schools to increase student opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity,” Cutforth says.

The Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center — which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is one of 37 prevention research centers in the U.S. — is part of the Colorado School of Public Health, a cooperative of the University of Colorado-Denver, the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University.

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