UMass Lowell's goal: healthier kids

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By SUSAN McMAHON
Sun Staff

LOWELL From coloring books to sunscreen, from gardening to exercise, a new UMass Lowell project aims to get the word out about healthy living.

School officials believe that, in a society where statistics on childhood obesity fill the headlines, it's a project whose time has come.

The new Division of Preventative Medicine at UMass Lowell aims to create a place focused on the problems of chronic illness in the community.

Obesity, which the researchers describe as an "epidemic," is at the forefront of the issues they plan on tackling.

The institute has set up a new program with the Lowell Housing Authority that will establish an exercise program for children at the Flanagan and North Common housing complexes. Youngsters will be able to track their own statistics throughout the summer, watching changes in their heart rates and body masses as they stick to a program of regular exercise.

The students can also take cooking and gardening classes to learn how to prepare foods in a healthy way.

The institute, in conjunction with other organizations in the city, is sponsoring a coloring book that promotes healthy lifestyles. The book helps children identify healthy food choices, reminds them to wear sunscreen, and tells them to use a lifejacket when taking a canal tour.

"We're surveying what is available for kids relating to this issue in the city," said Margaret Martin, associate director for the division of preventative medicine. "There are some good things in place, but we're trying to supplement and fill in the gaps."

The goal is to help children develop good habits early, in the face of high numbers of youngsters who are considered obese and develop adult onset diabetes.

Much of the research done at UMass Lowell's Center for Health and Disease focusing on such topics as obesity, risk factors for heart disease, and asthma will be the impetus for intervention strategies through the center.

"In many ways, what we're talking about is a way to put into place our basic research findings in the real world," said UMass Lowell professor Robert Nicolosi, director of the Center for Health and Disease Research.

The new division hopes to work with the community to create outreach programs and fill in the gaps when it comes to preventative medicine, with plans to partner with Saints Memorial Medical Center for various outreach projects.

In many ways, the institute will be able to fill a gap giving doctors a place to refer patients, and giving community members a place to go to improve their health.

The center will have the resources to accomplish long-term goals physicians may not have the time to set for patients.

"We're going to get you into a program where you'll see a nutritionist, an exercise physiologist, and you'll get a program of exercise three days a week," UMass Lowell professor Garry Handelman said. "Doctors can't get into that."

But the key to success will be community involvement, organizers say.

"It's really a continuum of intervention and education, but we want to entice the community to join us," Nicolosi said.

Susan McMahon's e-mail address is smcmahon@lowellsun.com .