MSU Extension programs address obesity problem

By Ms. Bonnie A. Coblentz

MSU Extension Service


STARKVILLE, Miss. — Recent data suggests Mississippians are learning that more is not always better when it comes to body weight.

The adult obesity rate has been increasing in the state for many years, but a recent report by the State of Obesity organization shows that a lot of hard work by many Mississippians is making progress. However, much work remains to be done. According to the Sept. 1, 2016, report, Mississippi remains tied with Alabama, West Virginia and Arkansas for second to last with an obesity rate of 35.6 percent.

The report noted that adult obesity rates decreased in Minnesota, Montana, New York and Ohio. This is the first time in the past decade that any state has experienced a decline in its obesity rate.

“Even though we didn’t fall behind other states, we did see a slight increase of .1 percent,” said David Buys, health specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “This increase was far less than in other recent years, which can be declared a small victory.”

MSU Extension has taken an active role in battling obesity for several years by offering a variety of educational and fitness programs.

“There are many individuals who have made significant progress in improving their personal fitness through participation in these programs,” Buys said.

Brent Fountain, Extension human nutrition specialist, coordinates the Walk-a-Weigh program, which combines healthy eating with physical activity.

“The program provides simple strategies to develop and maintain healthy eating habits and increasing physical activity gradually to the recommended 150 minutes a week, which breaks down to 30 minutes a day for five days a week,” Fountain said.

Implemented at the county level, this program focuses on core nutrition and physical activity competencies over eight lessons. Competencies include drinking more water, limiting sweetened beverages, increasing physical activity, avoiding fried foods, and increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables.

“Each lesson introduces or reinforces a healthy nutrition behavior and provides an opportunity to be physically active,” Fountain said. “With this strategy, we are emphasizing the importance of nutrition and physical activity when developing a weight management strategy. Each week, participants come and learn, then go out and walk as a group.”

Fountain said some groups like to stay together and make progress with their physical activity, such as increasing their pace or distance. Other times, a county Extension office will offer the program again to reach a new audience.

“Our goal with this program is to build healthy lifestyle behaviors that a person can adopt and maintain over a long period of time,” he said. “Our goal is to increase physical activity and those healthy nutritional behaviors that ultimately have an impact on weight.”

To date, 15 Mississippi counties have implemented the adult or 4-H youth curriculum. With adults, weight is measured and tracked from the beginning of the program until its completion. Weight is not measured at the start of the program for young people, but they are taught the importance of physical activity and good nutrition.

“The good thing about Walk-a-Weigh is there are multiple lessons in each competency,” Fountain said. “You could have the same group of people go back through it a second time and not have the same lessons.”

Laura Downey, an associate Extension professor involved in program planning and evaluation in the MSU School of Human Sciences, has implemented another Extension health education program called Jump Into Foods and Fitness. This program was developed in Michigan and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Through implementation of this curriculum, we hoped that the youth participants would show an increase in knowledge and skills for choosing food consistent with the dietary guidelines and an increase in physical activity,” Downey said.

The program was implemented over two years, with 541 young people in grades K-9 being reached in Itawamba, Jefferson, Lowndes and Newton counties in the first year alone.

“Based on preliminary data analysis from participants in Itawamba County, over the course of the program, participants learned the foods they should eat every day. They reported eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and they reported a slight increase in physical activity,” Downey said. “This preliminary evidence suggests that Jump Into Foods and Fitness could be a promising 4-H Healthy Living program that targets healthy eating and physical activity.”

Much work remains to be done to reduce the rate of adult obesity and associated chronic conditions in Mississippi. Other Extension Service programs that address these problems include the Diabetes Prevention Program and Dining with Diabetes. Contact the local Extension office for more details about these educational opportunities.