Newswise — Junk food, video games, TV − these are just a few factors causing an epidemic of obesity in preschool children, putting them at risk for developing high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Sofiya Alhassan of the University of Massachusetts Amherst is researching how to reverse this trend by introducing preschoolers in western Massachusetts to a program that makes physical activity fun.

As the children imitate animals, do the chicken dance and crawl under a giant parachute, Alhassan will document whether 30 minutes of structured outdoor play added to the school program encourages preschoolers to be more active through the rest of the day, which can have a powerful effect on their weight and health. The program began on March 10, 2008 and will end on June 8, 2009.

According to Alhassan, a critical age for the development of obesity has been identified as 3-5 years. "Children are naturally leanest before the age of 5 or 6, and then they start to gain weight through the natural growth process," says Alhassan, a faculty member in the kinesiology department. "Weight gain that begins earlier, for example, during the preschool years, is related to a much higher risk of adolescent, and potentially adult, obesity."

Seven preschool classrooms at the Jewish Community Center in Springfield and three classrooms at the Marks Meadow Elementary School on the UMass Amherst campus are participating in the current study. Classroom behavior and television habits were part of the baseline data collected before the study began. Students also wore devices called accelerometers to measure their physical activity, giving an accurate account of how many minutes they spent in light, moderate and vigorous physical activity over an entire week.

In past studies conducted by Alhassan, parents were shocked at the results from the accelerometers. "Most parents view their children as very active, since they tend to be excited when they return home after school, but more than half of the students actually fell into the sedentary category, averaging less than 16 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day," says Alhassan.

Students were then divided into two random groups. Half of the students are being given an extra 30 minutes of outdoor free-play time over the course of the school day. The other half are participating in 30 minutes of structured activity designed to raise their heart rates and improve their motor development and coordination. Alhassan believes that the structured activity may be more effective.

"As a post-doctoral fellow, I studied the effect of giving kids an extra 60 minutes of outdoor free-play time each day, but this didn't increase their level of physical activity, since they gravitated to the sandbox or swingset," says Alhassan. "This new study will introduce the kids to 30 minutes of structured activities. We will then determine whether this helps them remain more active through the rest of the day, or whether they compensate for the exercise by becoming less active."

Alhassan is working with the SPARK early childhood program, which was originally designed for elementary school children under a grant from the National Institutes of Health by Tom McKenzie and Paul Rosenberg. The program was later modified for preschoolers. Once her study is completed, it will be the first randomized trial of the program to be published.

First and foremost, the program is designed to be fun. Each session begins with a musical warm-up, followed by game oriented activities like "Parachute Wheel Run Around" and musical hula hoops. Almost the entire 30 minutes is geared towards moderate to vigorous activity, and is carefully designed to work on motor coordination and spatial orientation, in the hopes that increased coordination will make physical activity easier and more fun.

"Children generally don't play outside after school for a variety of reasons, and because of recent "no child left behind" programs, more of the school day is devoted to study," says Alhassan. "Integrating learning and exercise can help prevent obesity, which is the number one preventable risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes."