Reducing nationwide obesity starts in neighborhoods

July 03, 2003

Children, adolescents, and adults reported adopting healthier behaviors -- such as choosing heart-healthy foods more often - after participating in a Hearts N' Parks program, according to a new report on the community-based lifestyle initiative. In addition, adults said they boosted their level of regular physical activity after the program. Hearts N' Parks was developed in 1999 by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) to reduce the growing trend of obesity and the risk of coronary heart disease in the United States.

The new report, available on the NRPA Web site (, summarizes the results of written questionnaires administered by Hearts N' Parks program staff to more than 1200 children, adolescents, and adults on their knowledge, behavior, and attitudes regarding heart-healthy eating and physical activity before and after participating in a program in 2002. Overall, participants improved in nearly every indicator.

"High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke - these are just a few of the health problems that obesity and overweight contribute to," said Dr. Claude Lenfant, director of NHLBI, a component of the National Institutes of Health. "Hearts N' Parks is all about bringing what research has shown about the health risks associated with overweight and obesity to the community - and empowering people to make better lifestyle choices in order to improve their overall health."

Hearts N' Parks incorporates science-based information about lifestyle choices that can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and skills for adopting heart-healthy behaviors into regular activities offered by park and recreation departments and other community-based agencies. The program focuses on encouraging Americans of all ages to aim for a healthy weight, follow a heart-healthy eating plan, and engage in regular physical activity. Training for recreational staff and tools for measuring the impact of their activities is provided.

More than 50 Hearts N' Parks sites ("magnet centers") are now active in 11 states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio. Many magnet centers are holding special "FunFit" events in July - including several that are tied to local Fourth of July celebrations. For example, 40,000 people are expected at a July 4 event in Athens, GA, where there will be a special Hearts N' Parks tent with games, prizes, and health and wellness information. On July 5, residents of Roswell, NM, can measure their body fat and learn how to grill low-fat foods in conjunction with the city's annual Alien Chase. Over 100,000 people are expected at a July 6 concert and fireworks event in South Bend, IN that will feature Hearts N' Parks displays, nutrition and fitness quizzes. A July 11 Fun Fit Festival Field Day in Las Vegas, NV will be held for children in summer day camps who will participate in field games, swimming, and a healthy lunch contest.

"We want to reinforce the idea that celebrating good health is as important as celebrating democracy - and that individuals and families can have fun doing both," commented John Thorner, CAE, executive director of NRPA. July events also commemorate Recreation and Parks Month, an annual public awareness initiative of NRPA. "This year's theme, 'Community Sports and Health,' ties in nicely with the goals of Hearts N' Parks programs," added Thorner.

The Hearts N' Parks model supports the Department of Health and Human Services' Steps to a Healthier US initiative, based on the President's HealthierUS Initiative. These initiatives highlight the influence that healthy lifestyles and behaviors have in achieving and maintaining good health for individuals of all ages. They also encourage public-private partnerships to support community-driven programs on healthy lifestyles that contribute directly to the prevention or treatment of one of three key health problems: obesity, diabetes, or asthma.

The new report, "Hearts N' Parks - Phase II: Report of 2002 Magnet Center Performance Data," includes information on 68 programs which varied in size and duration. Data was collected by 36 Hearts N' Parks sites during their first year as a magnet center. Programs for children or adolescents were typically provided during summer camps or as after-school activities for 7 to 11 weeks. Adult programs, which lasted an average of 12 weeks, attracted largely seniors and women.

"Combining proven health interventions and skills training with local recreational facilities seemed like a natural," added Karen Donato, S.M., R.D., coordinator of the NHLBI Obesity Education Initiative. "Now we have the information to show that it really works."

Highlights of the performance report include:
The performance report is available at For more information about obesity, heart disease, or Hearts N' Parks - including a map of magnet center sites and a video about the program - visit the NHLBI Web site at or Community organizations interested in becoming a Hearts N' Parks site should contact the NRPA at or 1-800-649-3042.

NHLBI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Federal Government's primary agency for biomedical and behavioral research. NIH is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Information about Hearts N' Parks, as well as cardiovascular, lung, blood, and sleep disorders, is available online at

NOTE TO REPORTERS/PRODUCERS: For contact information on the Hearts N' Parks magnet center in your area, call the NHLBI Communications Office at 301-496-4236.

NIH/National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

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