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UC Irvine pediatrician’s research heavily influenced a new study out Sunday that shows healthier school lunches and longer, more vigorous physical activity for middle-schoolers can reduce obesity rates.

The key, says Dr. Dan Cooper, a pediatrics professor at UCI, is providing activities kids enjoy. Plus, there’s too much standing around in P.E.  “In a 45-minute class, if a P.E. instructor isn’t careful, he could lose 10-15 minutes just doing roll call,” he said. “By the time you get the kids organized, you’ve lost half your class.”

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The sports offered in the P.E. component of the study included traditional ones like basketball and soccer, but teachers had the option of implementing a wide variety of others, including frisbee, football, lacrosse, softball, street hockey, track and field, badminton, tennis, table tennis, swimming, and volleyball.

Cooper, who was involved in the study from its inception eight years ago, also incorporated program grown here in O.C.: Scott Bowman,principal at Rancho San Joaquin Middle Schoolin Irvine (and before that a longtime P.E. teacher), developed something called FLOW: Fitness Laboratory on Wheels. It’s a “station to station” program of high-energy activities like jump-roping using equipment that can be moved around from school to school. (In March the Register wrote about some of the innovations at Rancho.) FLOW is intended to be used as a warmup for something like a volleyball match.

The study says the goal was to increase kids’ motor functions grade by grade, “resulting in improved self-concept and better enjoyment of exercise.”

According to the study, released Sunday and to be published in the next New England Journal of Medicine, 16 percent of U.S. children 6-19 are overweight, and 19 percent are obese. The rates are even higher in predominantly minority schools.

To examine the problem, and the related rise in Type 2 diabetes among kids, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive & Kidney Diseases funded a study that tracked more than 4,000 students between 6th and 8th grades. UCI and six other research universities studied children in 42 middle schools that, on average, had a Latino population of 54 percent and a black population of 18 percent. Cooper and his team studied six schools in the racially diverse Long Beach Unified School District.

P.E. wasn’t the only kind of programming introduced. Researchers also made small, but important, changes to food systems: fruit juices were replaced with water; some cafeteria meats were swapped for lower-fat options; and getting rid of wilted lettuce to make salads more appealing.

Body-mass index and blood glucose levels were tested at the beginning of 6th grade and again at the end of the 8th. By the end, students from the “intervention” schools (those that received the bulk of the new programming) who were overweight or obese had a 21 percent lower rate of obesity than those from the “control” schools. To read the full study, go to www.healthystudy.org.

But even students in the latter schools enjoyed better health outcomes, proving that even minor changes on issues like physical activity and nutrition can have an impact, without radically restructuring existing school systems.

“A lot of people felt you couldn’t do anything at all in the schools about diabetes,” Cooper said. “This shows you can change things. We can make a difference.”

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