Project Energize boosts Waikato kids’ health

Children taking part in a new initiative called Project Energize show significant health benefits, with Energize children less overweight and obese, having smaller waists, and able to run faster than comparison groups, according to a new report published this week.

The Energize programme, initiated in 2005, and funded by the Waikato District Health Board, aims to increase the quality and quantity of physical activity and to improve the nutritional intakes of Waikato primary school children, of whom 34% are Maori. Additional funding was provided through the Healthy Eating Healthy Action strategy, with extra support from Sport Waikato and Auckland University of Technology.

A draft version of the report is available to registered journalists in our Resource Library.

The latest results of the project have been covered by several news outlets, including:

Waikato Times: Energised school kids keep going and going

Radio New Zealand: Call for health programme to go nationwide

New Zealand Herald: Healthier kids for 20c a day

NewsTalk ZB: Hamilton’s kids tipped as some of the healthiest

The Science Media Centre also contacted a number of nutrition and public health experts for their views on the implications of the results for New Zealand children:

Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition at Auckland University of Technology, and the lead researcher for this project, comments:

“Project Energize, funded by the Waikato District Health Board (DHB), is a through-school initiative to improve nutrition and physical activity, and reduce childhood obesity rates and cardiovascular risk factors in all primary schools in the Waikato DHB area of New Zealand.

“The programme, contracted to Sport Waikato since 2005, now includes 44,000 children, 244 schools, 27 “Energizers” and 1 dietitian. Energizers are assigned 8-12 schools each and act as a ‘one stop shop’ to support activities that promote and coordinate improved nutrition and physical activity within schools. The overall cost is less than $40 per child each year. A formal audit in 2008 showed that 92% of the money invested had a direct impact on the children.

“In March 2011, more than 5,000 7 and 10 year old children (36% M?ori) had physical measurements taken (including height, weight, waist, and time to run 550 metres). These latest results when compared with control data, showed that the prevalence of obesity and overweight was 3% less in both age groups. The 2011 Energize children also ran 550 metres 20 seconds faster compared to other New Zealand children measured between 2001 and 2007.

“Project Energize’s sustainable engagement with schools and success is an effective model for partnership between education and health in New Zealand and, if maintained, will achieve long term public health outcomes for children, and their children, in years to come.”

Professor Sir Mason Durie, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Maori & Pasifika), Massey University, comments:

“Project Energize is an innovative approach to improving health at an early age, before the consequences of being overweight have become irreversible. In developed countries across the world, obesity is already a major precursor to a range of disorders including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, all of which carry serious risks to life.

“Too often interventions are introduced when it is too late to make major lifestyle changes or the disorder is too far advanced to avoid serious illness. By introducing programmes to young people at school there is the hope that longer term health problems can be avoided and individuals will have the knowledge and incentive to adopt healthy patterns of eating and engage with regular exercise.

“Early intervention makes sense – not only to the individuals involved but also to their families and wh?nau. Along with other school-based programmes, Project Energize endorses schools as places where learning about the world can be combined with learning about personal health and wellbeing.”

Dr Robyn Toomath, from the Fight the Obesity Epidemic, comments:

“A great many programmes designed to increase physical activity and reduce weight in children have been initiated but relatively few are as carefully assessed as this has been. The programme has been successful in a large number of schools across a wide demographic and the all-inclusive nature means that this is an initiative likely to reduce rather than increase disparity.

“It is very encouraging to see how a modestly funded initiative can be cost-effective. All we need now is for a whole lot of things, each with a small impact, to happen at the same time. Things like the restoration of Mission On, banning of junk food ads on TV, increasing the price of soft drinks, lowering the fat content of standard chips, removing fast food outlets and dairies from beside schools etc and then we might just get there with childhood obesity.”

Dr Jan Pearson, Health Promotion Manager from the Cancer Society of New Zealand, comments:

“I would congratulate the team involved in the project which was clearly challenging due to the many factors, including mobility of the participants and environmental factors outside the research setting that had an impact on the research. The design of the programme was complex and robust and future results will be important in determining the long term impact of the programme. It is good to see that the two-year outcomes of project Energize show that there was a reduced accumulation of body fat in younger children and reduced rate of systolic BP in older children. It was also good to see that the programme resulted in a change in knowledge of healthy eating and activity for participants.

“If further results continue to show positive outcomes, and behaviour change comes from the increase in knowledge, the investment in this type of programme in all schools should lead to a reduction in non- communicable diseases and reduce the growing cost of preventable disease in New Zealand.”

Mafi Funaki-Tahifote is a Registered Dietitian and Operations Manager for Pacific Heartbeat at the New Zealand Heart Foundation. She comments:

“It is great to see programmes such as Energize being successfully run in schools, especially showing gains for all population groups including Pacific children and their families. Although inequalities still exist by decile and ethnicity, it’s fantastic to hear that it’s reduced. Pacific families can participate in sharing the benefits. Who knows: the Energize programme may with more time eliminate inequality.”

Cathy Khouri, a New Zealand Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist working in the Waikato area, comments:

“Project Energize has enjoyed a high profile locally since it was initiated in 2005. Although it is considered a relatively recent programme, it is pleasing to see such positive health changes in today’s obesogenic environment. I am sure the community will look forward to this programme continuing to improve the health of our children.”

Christine Cook, a Public Health Dietitian from Auckland, comments:

“Project Energize demonstrates that it is possible to have a favourable impact on the development of risk factors for long-term conditions (nutrition-related chronic disease) in children with a low-cost programme using the school setting.

“Energize highlights the need for school environments to be actively supportive of healthy eating choices, thus providing an opportunity for role modelling healthy food habits which can be followed at home.”