nick cutforthDr. Nick Cutforth, Department Chair and Professor of Research Methods and Statistics, is helping to improve physical education practices in underserved, rural, and low-income Colorado schools through a community-engaged research project, Healthy Eaters, Lifelong Movers (HELM). Obesity has been identified as the biggest health threat to U.S. children according to the Institute of Medicine. Alongside Dr. Elaine Belansky from the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health, Dr. Cutforth aims to turn this around with HELM, partnering with K-12 schools to implement evidence-based, school-level environment and policy changes. HELM has two proven approaches: AIM (Assess, Investigate, Make it Happen), which promotes healthy eating and physical activity in students; and the Physical Education Academy, a professional development program for teachers that increases the quality of physical education. Initially funded by the Colorado Health Foundation in 2010, HELM provides participating schools with the training, equipment, and monetary resources needed to implement healthy changes.

While AIM encourages healthy behavior for the entire day, the Physical Education Academy focuses on P.E. class and introduces teachers to the SPARK program, an evidenced-based P.E. curriculum, which involves teaching traditional games and sports in innovative ways, and more small-sized games and activities that cater to the individualized abilities of students. “We’ve introduced a new kind of P.E.,” says Dr. Cutforth, “which engages all the children, not just the athletes.” As a result P.E. classes provide more opportunities to increase moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) among students.

Currently in his fifth year with the project, Dr. Cutforth’s work has shown significant improvements in the quality of physical education programs and teachers’ instructional practices. For example, in the 17 San Luis Valley elementary schools that participated in the P.E. Academy, the quantity of MVPA in P.E. class increased from 51.1% to 67.3% over a two-year intervention period, resulting in approximately 14.6 additional hours of physical activity over a school year. He says, “PE teachers are disguising fitness in the form of fun activities, so the kids are much more engaged, and the teachers are spending less time on classroom management.”

In 2013, HELM was refunded by the Colorado Health Foundation and has expanded to schools in southeast Colorado. HELM’s reach now extends to more than 15,000 kids in some of the poorest counties in the state.

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