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Shape Up Success: PepsiCo grant, promising results help obesity prevention program go nationwide

by Mark Sullivan

SOMERVILLE They could have been the poster kids for the fourth annual Shape Up Somerville 5K Run/Walk and Family Fun and Fitness Day: three little girls, with race numbers pinned to their green event tee-shirts, eating bananas.

"We got a medal!" exclaimed four-year-old Diva Cersosimo, of Melrose, there with her twin sister, Ella, and friend Mia Francis, five, of Malden. The girls already had competed in the obstacle course, testing their skills at jumping, tunnel-crawling and ball-kicking, and were readying for the 100-yard dash across Trum Field for children ages three to six.

"It's great they have events for kids," said the twins' mother, Jessica Cersosimo, whose family physician, Dr. Michael Coffey of Somerville, was an organizer of the Shape Up Somerville races and fun day Sept. 30. "I'm all for getting the kids active," she said.

Getting kids active is the idea behind Shape Up Somerville, the obesity prevention experiment launched by Tufts researchers that promotes a city-wide campaign to keep schoolchildren fit. The success of Shape Up Somerville has been making headlines. Now, a $2.2 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation will enable the groundbreaking experiment to be replicated in three more communities around the country.

Assistant Professor Christina Economos, N96, holder of the New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition, and fellow researchers at the John Hancock Center of the Friedman School designed the Shape Up program under which Somerville has made a community-wide effort to curb childhood obesity.

Not only have Somerville schools nearly doubled the amount of fresh fruit in school lunches, local restaurants have switched to low-fat milk and smaller portion sizes, and the city has added bike racks and repainted crosswalks to encourage walking to school.

The Somerville experiment is working. According to a report published in May 2008 in the medical journal Obesity, Somerville schoolchildren during the 2003-04 school year gained less weight - as much as a pound less - than children in two nearby communities used as a control group. The news made the front page of the Wall Street Journal and was reported by NBC Nightly News, ABC's Nightline, and CNN, among other media outlets.

The PepsiCo foundation grant will enable the experiment to be tried in three more communities, with three others serving as controls, all to be chosen later this year.

Claire Lyons, manager of global grant programs for the PepsiCo Foundation, said: "PepsiCo Foundation is delighted to continue supporting the important and groundbreaking work of Dr. Economos and her team. We believe the community-based intervention model, which is the framework for the Shape Up spread, is a superior method in helping communities become healthier places to live, work and go to school.

"As the results of the first year's intervention show, a coordinated and comprehensive strategy does produce a slow down and reduction in weight gain among children. This is quite encouraging evidence and spurs us forward to focus more at the community level. Dr Economos leads the United States in this particular type of action-based research which is aligned with the Foundation's targeted grant priorities. Our collective goals are to positively impact American's health; we hold much hope in the Shape Up model as a way to bring this about."

Economos was to present her research at the second annual Friedman School Symposium Oct. 29-31. "There are many communities around the country attempting to make changes and what this study tells us is they should persevere," she said. "A lot of people making a few small changes added up to produce significant results. We couldn't go to the children and say you have to change your lifestyle. We had to change the environment and the community spirit first."

That community spirit was evident at the Shape Up Somerville road race and fun day which drew 300 adults and children on Sept. 30. Moon-bounces undulated on Trum Field as lines of runners trotted past the triple-deckers on Broadway. Those who crossed the finish line in the kids' 1.5-mile run or the five-kilometer (3.1-mile) run were met with applause and trays of Redbones Barbecue.

"It was kind of hard to keep up, but it was pretty fun," said Emily Kate O'Brien, 10, of Winter Hill, Somerville, upon finishing the mile-and-a-half race, and joining her father, Timothy, at the finish line to cheer on her mother, Jeanne, in the 5K.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who ran with members of his staff, finished the 5K course in a little more than 25 minutes. "People are talking about eating smart and playing hard," the mayor said, "and this is another example of how people in the community are embracing a healthy lifestyle."

Some 30 Tufts medical students ran the 5K in blue hospital garb as the TUSM Classes of 2010 and 2011 raced each other for primacy in the so-called Scrubs Division. "This is a fun event, and the community spirit is great," said Christie Binder, M11, after the run

Prof. Economos' son, seven-year-old Luke Pailet, munched an apple after finishing the kids' 1.5-mile race in a little more than 16 minutes. "It was fun," Luke said. "Some of the time we had to pace ourselves because we got a little tired, but then we ran faster again."

Akash Altman, 10-year-old son of Dr. Wayne Altman, associate professor at Tufts Medical School, finished the race in 16-and-a-half minutes. Asked what he liked about running, Akash answered: "Probably the exercise." He keeps running, he said, "Because it's good for you."

Economos stood at the finish clapping for runners as they crossed the line. "It's a great community event," she said. "It's great to see kids walking and running, playing field games, getting out and staying healthy."