A heavy burden: The obesity epidemic

This was no ordinary game of tag: Just as the elementary-school children were getting the hang of it, their instructor shouted “STOP!” and changed the game’s rules. The children now had to hold a partner’s hand and adapt their strategies accordingly. Soon, another “STOP!” Now they had to shrink the playing field to half the gymnasium.

The children, at this point breathing hard and smiling big, were participating in a University of Georgia study exploring the link between physical activity and academic performance. The initial goal was just to keep the students moving, and on that count the program was already an unmitigated success. While most children in elementary schools’ phys-ed classes are engaged in moderate to vigorous activity a mere 10 percent of session time, these students (at Chase Street Elementary in Athens) were physically engaged for 64 percent of their 45-minute session-or nearly a half hour.

“We’d like to expand this program to more schools,” said professor of kinesiology Bryan McCullick, “because physical activity is important not only for preventing obesity but also for the overall well-being of the child.”

Such after-school classes are only part of a broad set of programs at UGA that are addressing one of the most pressing threats to Georgians’ health and prosperity. While McCullick and his colleagues focus on reducing obesity in youth through physical activity, others at UGA are exploring how changes to our diets, workplaces, communities, and lifestyles can create a healthier future.


A heavy burden: Never too late

As people age out of the workforce and into retirement, the consequences of obesity become more and more apparent. Obesity accelerates and exacerbates diseases of aging, such as heart disease, while at the same time robbing older adults of mobility and independence, among other costs.

For more than a decade, Mary Ann Johnson, the Bill and June Flatt Professor of Foods and Nutrition, has been exploring the factors that put older adults at risk for obesity; and as a result she has designed and tested interventions to help them lead healthier lives. Working with the Athens Community Council on Aging and senior centers across the state, she has found that it is never too late for older adults to improve their health.

One study, a four-month series of classes that included chair-based exercises and encouraged participants to record their number of daily steps with a pedometer, helped them increase their physical activity by 26 percent. As a result, the number of participants reporting good physical function increased from 17 percent to 25 percent. Another series of classes focusing on healthful eating produced a 21-percent increase in the number of participants who consumed at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily. “We’ve seen this over and over,” Johnson said. “Older people are willing to change; they just need a little help, guidance, and support.”



A heavy burden: A weight loss pill?

Eating less and exercising more certainly play important roles in preventing obesity, but research suggests that supplements could play a role as well. For more than a decade, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and Distinguished Professor Clifton Baile and his colleagues have been exploring the potential of certain plant-based compounds—phytochemicals—as aids to weight loss.

Early research into compounds such as resveratrol, found in red wine and known for its anti-aging effects; and genistein, found in coffee, soy, and other beans; revealed that these compounds can cause fat cells in culture to die. In subsequent studies using mice, however, none of the compounds alone proved to be particularly effective.

But because each phytochemical fights fat in a different way—for example, by reducing the blood supply to existing fat cells, mobilizing the fat from those cells, or by preventing the creation of new fat cells—Baile and his colleagues began exploring what happens when they combined such compounds. In a recent study, they found that older female rats given the combination of vitamin D, resveratrol, genistein, and quercetin (present in certain fruits and vegetables) gained less weight than a control group that did not receive the phytochemical cocktail. Weight gain and bone loss tend to occur at the same time in postmenopausal women, and the scientists found that the rats given the compounds also had greater bone density than the animals in the control group.

Baile and his team will need to test the cocktail in humans, of course, but the results so far are promising. “It really is possible to impact adiposity, or fatness, as well as bone health with the right combination of phytochemicals in the right proportions,” he said.