April 06, 2005

Heart Smart for Teens will expand in schools next year

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A health education program targeting heart disease that was originally set up for eighth-grade girls at West Frankfort Central Junior High School is so successful; organizers will expand it to include boys next year.

Heart Smart for Teens is delivered jointly by Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Frankfort Community School District and the University of Illinois Franklin County extension office.

The program is based on a program designed by the Illinois Department of Public Health's Office of Women's Health and aims to cut down on heart disease in later life by teaching healthy eating and exercise habits early on.

"The girls talk about things like self-esteem and the food guide pyramid, get makeovers, learn some exercise routines — we've even had them do line dancing— and we always have healthy snacks at every meeting," said Penelope K. Tippy, a doctor who heads the SIU Carbondale Family Medicine Residency Program, part of the SIU School of Medicine, and oversees Heart Smart.

"We started the program about three years ago and then had lots of questions from the boys about how come they didn't get this, so next year it will be all eighth-graders period."

The team has also expanded the program to include seventh- and eighth-grade girls at Benton Junior High School and plans to branch out into Sesser Junior High School next school year.

Dr. Tippy said they decided to set up the program after doing a needs assessment with high school students in Franklin County, where her department already ran a weekly clinic for teens.

"Not only did these students want medical services, they also wanted nutritional information — they saw that as a need," she said.

In addition, county data showed Franklin County had more people who tended to be overweight, smoke and lead couch-potato lifestyles than did other counties. Since 1980 heart disease has caused more deaths there than anything else.

To get to the largest number of girls possible, program organizers worked with school officials to make Heart Smart part of physical education classes.

"Most other programs are offered at off-school locations with just a few kids turning out," Dr. Tippy said.

"The Department of Public Health was really excited by this because our program reached more kids than any of their others."

Hands-on running of the program falls to Robynn R. Nawrot, a staff member from SIUC's Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development , working with the Carbondale family medicine residency program. She draws on the skills of Jennifer Newbury, a UI nutritionist, in running many of the sessions, while the residency program provides faculty and resident physicians for the medical portions as well as a social worker to discuss eating disorders and self-esteem. The school's PE teacher attends each session so she can reinforce through the week the things the girls learn in the Heart Smart class.

Students start the program by signing a contract agreeing to participate in all the activities so each "can become a healthier person." They keep track of the food they eat and the exercise they get over the course of the program, and they set some personal goals.

The programs can vary a bit from semester to semester, but they always include a session called "Ask A Doc."

"It's one of the favorites," Nawrot said.

"People often don't give the girls straight answers (to health questions) or they're afraid to ask or they ask in an indirect way and so don't get their real questions answered."

Girls write out their "Ask a Doc" questions ahead of time, guaranteeing they won't be embarrassed.

And while the girls are getting answers, the docs are getting something more, Nawrot said.

"They're in family medicine — it helps them understand the importance of getting involved in the community," she noted.

Serving others is one of the core commitments of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, SIUC's long-range plan.