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Ten Years On, Health and Fitness Programme for NZ Kids is a Quiet Revolution

Team EnergizePirongia School in the Waikato has thrown out pizza and fish and chips in the tuck shop, in favour of healthier wraps, baked potatoes, veggie fried rice and waffles with yoghurt.

In doing so, it’s joined a list of 290 Waikato, Northland and Auckland primary schools that have implemented a programme to change nutritional and exercise habits for primary school aged children.

Sport Waikato’s, Project Energize – ten years old in 2015, began as a randomised control trial in schools, via significant funding from the Waikato District Health Board. Project academic leader Professor Elaine Rush, from AUT University, who is also a Principal Investigator with Gravida (the Government’s centre of research excellence in growth and development), has been able to prove the programme has made a difference to the fitness of children in the age group.

She introduced a new ‘fitness measure’ to participating schools and the 52,000 children who are involved to test the time it takes for primary school aged children to run 550 metres. She blind tested the measure against children from non-participating schools, and found that those who were participating in the programme ran the 550 metres in less time.

Sports-Waikato-logoProject Energize gets deeply into the community and into both high and low decile schools says Professor Rush. It embeds itself through 27 ‘Energizers’, who go into schools to listen, talk, introduce programmes and get kids moving and eating better.

“For instance, they take ‘huff and puff’ games and activities into the schools and demonstrate why water and milk are the best drinks. The Energizers show kids, teachers and parents how to make a healthy sandwich,” says Professor Rush. “Eat healthily and have fun” is the mantra. The Energizers are skilled at doing a stocktake on what the school already achieves in physical education and nutrition, and adding to those existing programmes. From what we have seen and what we have measured, Project Energize is really making a difference.”

Professor Elaine Rush

Professor Elaine Rush

The cost of Project Energize is around $45 per child per year. “It’s a cost effective, intervention method that could have big health results down the line,” says Professor Rush. The cost of implementing the research has been picked up in the Waikato by the Waikato District Health Board, and implemented by Sport Waikato (who employs the Energizers). In other areas of New Zealand, funding comes from different sources.

Tracey Fleming is the Sport Waikato Energizer at Pirongia School, Waikato, which has been on board Project Energize for five years. The level of involvement she has seen through the programme continues to thrill and amaze her.

Last year, one of the year 7-8 classes ran a survey that speculated on what might happen if healthier food were sold at the school. “What would kids have for lunch? the survey asked,” she said. “They made some great choices, and results were presented back to the school parents committee, which was running a school canteen on a Friday to raise money for the school. So from this year on they’ve been offering healthier options for $3 a lunch. There has actually been an increase in kids wanting bought lunches, and more profits have been returned to the school.”

Fizzy drinks were banned some time ago, she says, but the meals are a further step. “Now the kids in Years 5 and 6 are even helping out with preparation, and learning how to make the food,” she says.

Tracey, who has an honours degree in sports and exercise nutrition, is typical of Energizers. Tertiary qualified, they are very experienced at engaging the schools in any way the schools choose. Sometimes, Tracey assists in class by taking lessons on nutrition, or suggesting alternative classes to the teaching staff.

“Energizers tend to live in the community they’re working with“, says Professor Rush. “The kids love them. They drive colourful branded cars, wear bright, funky uniforms and make being active and eating healthy fun. Their message is clear, although how they work with each school differs and depends on the needs and wants of that school.”

Egg-fried-riceIn 2014, “Under5 Energize” was introduced as a Ministry of Health funded pilot programme – again to the Waikato first. It has already recruited most pre-schools and kohanga reo in four pilot districts.

“One kohanga saw what we were doing, and told every parent they were now introducing a water bottle for every child,” says Professor Rush. “They told every parent to stop sending children with sweet drinks in bottles. It worked. Sometimes, there’s a tipping point for people. They’re ready for change. They just need a prompt.”

Professor Rush also says there’s no blame attached to parents who fill lunchboxes with junk food. “Parents are under stress. Frequently, both parents are working. It’s a struggle to even get lunch. We’re just reminding them that it can be easy to provide a healthy lunch. We’re giving them suggestions and showing them how,” she says.

Professor Philip Baker, director of Gravida, says that Project Energize has broken new ground for both research institutes and in terms of a health and nutrition programme’s longevity. “A ten year success story is very special,” he says. “Project Energize continues to gain momentum and produce results wherever it goes. It is successful because it has a basis in research, and that research has continued too. Putting research into action in the community, so that it’s meaningful, is one of our central remits. ”

For more information, please contact:

Professor Elaine Rush, Project Energize Programme leader

Kayleigh Farquhar Sponsorship and Communications Manager Sport Waikato PH: 021 240 8157 or kayleighf@sportwaikato.org.nz

About Gravida www.gravida.org.nz

Gravida brings together leading biomedical and clinical scientists from around New Zealand and around the world to identify conditions encountered in early life that affect the way people grow and develop throughout life. One of its key responsibilities is to transfer knowledge into research-led community programmes and information that improve the health and wellbeing of children and adults.

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