Community-based Program Focusing on Physical Activity and Healthy Eating to Go Virtual

Children eating

How do we engage children who struggle with overweight and obesity and their families in physical activity and healthy eating in the midst of a pandemic?

That’s the question that the Healthy Weight, Nutrition and Fitness Initiative at the Hassenfeld Institute will aim to answer early this year with the launch of its Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration Project, or CORD 3.0. This study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will test the implementation of an evidence-based pediatric weight-control program in community settings. The idea behind the project is to modify existing community-based weight control  programs so they can be easily replicated in low-income communities across the country.

“The goal is to have all the materials ready so any organization can access them and have what they need to run their own program,” said Elissa Jelalian, Ph.D.

Dr. Jelalian co-leads the Healthy Weight Initiative with Erika Werner, M.D., M.S., and Rena Wing, Ph.D., who directs the Miriam Hospital Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center (WCDRC), where Dr. Jelalian is associate director. The WCDRC is one of only five centers across the country to receive funding from the CDC for CORD 3.0.

The Healthy Weight Initiative has worked with the communities in some of Rhode Island’s most economically disadvantaged cities, such as Central Falls and Woonsocket, as well as with the Providence Community Health Centers, to deliver high-quality programming to treat overweight and obesity among kids.

But this will be the first time the Initiative has delivered an intervention completely online.

“We’re moving everything to virtual. We’re hoping this will make it easier for families to participate,” Dr. Jelalian said.

Typically, children ages six through 12 with overweight or obesity and their caretakers are enrolled into CORD 3.0 and meet in groups every week for a curriculum delivered by a community health worker. Given anticipated challenges with face-to-face group meetings for the immediate future, Dr. Jelalian and her colleagues plan to deliver the group intervention remotely using Zoom.

“The support people receive from other families in the program is intangible. The challenge is how to recreate that in a virtual setting,” Dr. Jelalian said.

The intervention the Healthy Weight Initiative will launch this spring will include online interactive activities to get people up and moving, Dr. Jelalian said, as well as an online tool that will allow families to search for local resources, such as an interactive map of nearby food banks and farmers markets, opportunities for outdoor physical activity and other community-based resources. The Hassenfeld Institute’s Core Research and Evaluation Unit, with help from recent Hassenfeld Summer Scholars, has created a template for the web resource that will provide families with information on local resources.

The Initiative will collaborate with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, a Hassenfeld Institute partner, for the project. For several years, the Food Bank has been running its Healthy Habits program, a six-week program where participants attend cooking demonstrations and receive the ingredients to make healthy recipes at home. In March, the Food Bank moved the program to a virtual platform, with videos of cooking demonstrations and other educational sessions.

The Healthy Weight Initiative plans to partner with the Food Bank to offer similar online resources.

 “We’ll be providing participants with internet access and electronic devices for the intervention, otherwise we risk perpetuating an inequity," Dr. Jelalian said. "We want to make sure people have the access they need."

 Learn more about the Healthy Weight, Nutrition and Fitness Initiative.