More than information


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane /

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane /

From cutting carbs to reducing sodium, weight loss tips are plentiful in the media. Even tips based on research studies often appear to contradict the findings of other studies. With an abundance of obesity research, cutting through the noise to help reduce obesity can be challenging for those involved in health communication. Ultimately, helping people lose weight may be more about helping them change their habits than simply providing them with information, according to experts involved with UGA’s Obesity Initiative.

“I think a lot of times people would like to believe if I just tell you how many calories you’re consuming … that in and of itself will help people interested in losing weight,” said Glen Nowak, who is a professor and director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It’s much more difficult than that.”

Effective health communications involves helping people change their lifestyle. Experts say the best combination for losing weight is still counting calories and exercising. But to encourage people to adopt these behaviors, communication efforts have to call attention to rewards or incentives, according to Nowak. For people to alter their habits, they often have to recognize what they are going to gain from the change.

Nowak co-leads the UGA Obesity Initiative’s Persuasive Health and Marketing Communication Team, along with Karen King, who is the Jim Kennedy Professor of New Media in UGA’s Grady College. The team hopes to collaborate with others involved in obesity research and outreach to help achieve this behavior change.

While health communications alone is not enough to combat obesity, it is still a vital part of interventions, according to Nowak.

“You really do need good communications to get people’s attention, to get them to do something,” Nowak said.

Virtual pets encourage kids to exercise


Obesity Initiative at UGA

A camper in the Georgia 4-H Summer Camp program plays with his virtual pet. Photo courtesy of Grace Ahn and Kyle Johnsen.

A camper in the Georgia 4-H Summer Camp program plays with his virtual pet. Photo courtesy of Grace Ahn and Kyle Johnsen.

People who own dogs may be more likely to exercise, according to a 2013 American Heart Association report. Now, researchers at the University of Georgia have found that virtual pets can also encourage kids to get moving.

The University of Georgia researchers developed a virtual reality experience that allows children to use their own exercise to increase the fitness of a virtual dog. As a child meets physical activity goals, he is able to teach his dog new tricks. The project, funded by a seed grant from UGA’s Obesity Initiative, was found to increase the physical activity of kids at a local summer camp by one hour per day compared to kids who used a goal-setting program without a virtual pet.

“Not only were we interested in developing the [virtual] dog, we were interested in making sure that this virtual dog would help children change behavior,” said Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, an assistant professor of advertising in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, who was the principal investigator on the project. The endeavor was a collaboration between Ahn, UGA College of Engineering assistant professor Kyle Johnsen and faculty from UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

The researchers took the virtual reality system to the Georgia 4-H Summer Camp program at Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Eatonton, Georgia last summer. This field-testing site for the study was provided by UGA Extension. Children at the camp were given clip-on activity monitors, similar to a pedometer. By plugging the activity monitors into a computer kiosk, the kids were also able to access their own personal virtual pet. Each child set a physical activity goal for his or her pet, such as 30 minutes of exercise, using the computer system.

“The idea was that as the children exercise the virtual dog exercises with them,” Ahn said.

If the child exercised enough to meet the pet’s goal, the child was able to use the virtual reality system to teach his pet a new trick using vocal cues and hand gestures. As the child met more goals, he could teach the dog more complicated tricks – such as roll over, fetch and even moonwalk.

After three days, the children who were able to interact with and set goals for their virtual pet exercised an hour more each day than children who set goals using a computer system but no virtual pet. The findings were published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics and have also been accepted for publication in the Journal of Health Communication.

“What we think is happening is that they care about the virtual pet’s well-being,” said Ahn. “Once you recognize and realize that the virtual pet is becoming healthier because of you then you feel much more confident about your [exercise] abilities.”

In addition to providing an exercise buddy and a reward system, the virtual nature of the intervention allowed it to be personalized for each child.

“In virtual reality, you can track what people are doing very, very well and you can provide very detailed feedback, individualized feedback,” Johnsen said. “You can’t do that with other interventions like a commercial or a class.”

In the future, Johnsen and Ahn hope to continue their collaboration to see if they can achieve continued physical activity increases with longer interventions, such as 12 weeks or 16 weeks.

“I think this was one of those instances where the Obesity Initiative did a really good job in terms of pulling together very interdisciplinary people,” Ahn said. “It was a really big collection of different expertise that really brought this forward.”

Food rules or free-for-all: helping children develop a healthy relationship with food


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of Iamnee /

Image courtesy of Iamnee /

Tight control over snacks can make kids want them more, according to a study by UGA foods and nutrition professor Leann Birch, which was featured last month in The New York Times. For parents, finding the right balance between structure and choice could be important to ensuring their children have a healthy relationship with food.

All children in the study were more attracted to snacks that were typically prohibited than snacks that were made easily accessible. But the forbidden snacks were even more enticing for some of the kids, specifically those that were found to be “reactive eaters,” or highly motivated by food, in another task. These children ate more of the prohibited snacks when they were made available, according to the Times article.

The next step in this research is to determine how much freedom parents should give their kids when it comes to eating, Birch explained in a follow-up interview. The answer may depend on how naturally reactive to food the child is.

Birch, who conducted the research while on faculty at Penn State, said her colleagues are currently testing how different parenting approaches affect kids’ attraction to food. She thinks parenting principles from other areas of psychology, which suggest balancing structure and freedom, may apply.

“Parents can provide structure for children by choosing the foods available to them and providing routines related to the timing of meals and snacks,” said Birch, who is a member of UGA’s Obesity Initiative. “Within that structure, parents can allow children to make all the choices about whether and how much to eat.”

Check out the Times article for more tips from the expert.

Not burgers, but pounds


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of khunaspix/

Image courtesy of khunaspix/

Eating burgers over broccoli may not cause you to have cancer, but if your diet leads to obesity, there’s more cause for concern. Many connections between specific foods and cancer prevention have been called into question in recent years, according to a New York Times article published earlier this week. Controlling obesity, on the other hand, appears to be more important.

Obesity has been associated with a higher risk for a variety of cancers, including cancers of the colon, esophagus, gallbladder, kidney, pancreas, uterus and breast, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Around one in four new cancers in men and one in seven new cancers in women were attributed to obesity in 2007, according to one study cited by the NCI.

Recent reports suggest more connections between various cancers and obesity. In March, a USA Today article reported findings associating excess weight with ovarian cancer for the first time. This month, LiveScience cited another study connecting obesity to a specific type of breast cancer.

The benefits of a healthy weight are greater for reducing the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, medical oncologist Alexi Wright told USA Today. The NCI also notes that much of the evidence for the connection between obesity and cancer comes from observational studies, meaning it’s harder to tell whether other factors are to blame for cancer development.

Nonetheless, if you’re hoping to ward off the disease, you might be better off focusing on staying fit rather than eating a specific “superfood.”

Furthering fitness in South Georgia


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of federico stevanin/

Image courtesy of federico stevanin/

Community leaders are making efforts to promote health in one of Georgia’s most obese counties – Burke County – according to an article published last week in The Red & Black.

Burke County has an obesity rate of 36 percent, and 31 percent of its residents aren’t physically active, according to this year’s County Health Rankings. But efforts are being made to encourage exercise.

The article tells the story of Kyleigh Egan and her family, who started running and walking together after Kyleigh participated in a youth fitness program called Girls on the Run. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service in Burke County brought the international after-school program to the area.

Located in Southeast Georgia on the South Carolina border, Burke is ranked 145 out of Georgia’s 159 counties for health outcomes, a measure of length of life and quality of life used by the County Health Rankings. Surrounding counties, such as Jenkins and Richmond, have similar low rankings at 142 and 135, respectively. Some of the top preventable causes of death are related to obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Leaders of the University of Georgia Obesity Initiative hope to partner with extension offices in the future to reduce obesity in South Georgia and throughout the state, as the Red & Black article explains.

UGA researchers have already worked with another South Georgia community, Colquitt County, to promote the use of walking trails and farmers markets.

“What we’re hoping will happen is that, as we get things on the ground that are successful, those things will diffuse across the state,” said Debbie Murray, co-chair of the Obesity Initiative’s Community Health Team, in The Red & Black’s article.

For more on obesity in Georgia counties, check out the previous article in The Red & Black’s “Weigh down South” series.


Go local: community leaders key to decreasing obesity in Georgia


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of koratmember/

Image courtesy of koratmember/

The obesity challenge is a statewide problem, but it requires local solutions.

The UGA Obesity Initiative has been involved in efforts to decrease obesity in Georgia’s Clarke County and Colquitt County. Gaining the support of local leaders was crucial to these efforts, UGA’s Debbie Murray told the Red & Black in an article published last week. Murray co-chairs the initiative’s Community Health Team.

“You start with those champions in that community,” Murray said in the article. “When you have some of those champions who really take on the issue, then that helps build the capacity because they bring people along with them.”

While attempts are being made to curb obesity in these counties, much work is left to be done in communities across the state. The Red & Black article tells the story of Terrell County, which has the highest percentage of obese adults in the state. Though the problem is complex, the article does provide hope, suggesting ways local community and business leaders might address the obesity issue.

One possibility the article doesn’t mention is encouraging involvement in existing statewide programs for healthy living, such as WalkGeorgia, a fitness program sponsored by UGA Cooperative Extension. While a single program can’t solve the issue for a community, it can be a step in the right direction.

To find out more about obesity and well-being in your community, find your county on the County Health Rankings map, created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Obesity rates in young children down …. somewhat


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Boy eating burger; free but publish attribution;  image courtesy of  ID-100176661The rate of obesity in young U.S. children has fallen 43 percent in the last decade, according to reports last week by the New York Times, the Washington Post and a variety of other outlets.

That’s encouraging news for a country making efforts to reduce childhood obesity through programs like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.

However, as this Slate article notes, the 43 percent figure is a little misleading.

The figure comes from a study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers that was published last week.

The data show that the obesity rate for 2-to-5-year-old children in the U.S. decreased from 14 percent in 2003-2004 to slightly over 8 percent in 2011-2012.

That’s a change of only 6 percentage points, but a relative change of 43 percent, as Slate explains. In other words, 14 percent is 43 percent greater than 8 percent. The difference isn’t quite as striking as last week’s headlines made it seem.

On a more encouraging note, the same data suggest the overall prevalence of obesity in the U.S. didn’t increase over the last ten years, so that’s something. Obesity rates were 17 percent in youth and 35 percent in adults in 2011-2012, which is not significantly different from 2003-2004 data.

The takeaway? Keep moving, America. (And check out this video of the President and Vice President doing a White House workout of their own).


Trotting with the Dawgs


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Logo courtesy of UGA Alumni Association

Logo courtesy of UGA Alumni Association

Winter may have meant less exercise for some, but with spring around the corner, a 5K may be just the way to get moving again.

UGA alumni and friends will pound the pavement together during the Seventh Annual Dawg Trot 5K on Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 8 a.m.

Runners and walkers will follow the route across the University of Georgia campus from Stegeman Coliseum up to Baldwin Street and back down to the Dan Magill Tennis Complex. The run is an official Run & See Georgia Grand Prix race, so runners can use their time from the Dawg Trot to qualify for an earlier start time at races around U.S., including Atlanta’s own Peachtree Road Race.

Competitive participants can also vie for overall and age-group-specific awards. Kids six and under can join in the fun for free with ­­the Kids Fun Run, which will take place prior to the 5K, at 7:30 a.m.

The run is sponsored by the UGA Alumni Association and is an official event of Dawgs on the Move, an initiative that supports UGA’s Obesity Initiative by encouraging UGA Alumni and friends to be active.

Early registration closes at midnight on Friday, March 7, and online registration closes at midnight on Thursday, March 13.

For more information or to register for the race, check out

Walk Georgia is back


Obesity Initiative at UGA

walkGeorgiaSmallBannerIf you missed the chance to traverse the state last fall, join your fellow Georgians in tracking your weekly workouts this spring.

Walk Georgia is a fitness program sponsored by UGA Cooperative Extension. Individuals or four-person teams log their physical activity online for 12 weeks. The time spent burning energy is translated into miles “walked” across the state. As they add miles, exercisers travel across a virtual map of Georgia and learn interesting facts about the different counties they pass through.

The goal for all participants is to reach 15 miles per week. People with a competitive streak can also see how they stack up against other walkers. Last fall the WalkGeorgia blog posted the leading individuals and teams for each week. The blog also featured places where Georgians could enjoy being active, such as High Falls State Park.

Registration for the upcoming session starts February 1 and lasts until March 10. Participants will then track their activity from February 2 to April 26. Head over to for more details.

Virus may play role in obesity and bone loss


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

A sinister virus is creeping up to young, impressionable cells and influencing them to turn into insidious globs of fat.

Or so scientists think.

The idea that viruses are invading cells and making people fat is controversial. Researchers from the University of Georgia (UGA) are adding to a growing pile of evidence linking a virus called adenovirus 36 (Ad36) to obesity in humans.

A previous post detailed some of this research.  Earlier this year, the researchers published one study on Ad36, obesity and bone strength in Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

The researchers reported that female obese teenagers were more likely to have antibodies against Ad36 than their normal weight counterparts. The antibodies show that the person was previously infected with the virus. In addition, obese teens with Ad36 antibodies had weaker and more brittle bones than obese teens without the antibody.

“The big picture when we had this idea [was] to prove solidly that adenovirus has an effect on obesity in humans,” said Srujana Rayalam, one of the co-authors of the study.

However, Rayalam said that the group still needs to do more studies, preferably in people of different ages and genders to truly say that bone loss and weakness in obese individuals is caused by Ad36.

Ad36 belongs to a family of adenoviruses that cause pinkeye, the common cold, gastroenteritis and other human miseries.

It is still unclear how Ad36 is involved in bone and obesity. Emma Laing, lead author of the study, thinks bone loss and weakness is due to Ad36 attacking a group of cells called mesenchymal stem cells. These stem cells are highly suggestible and have the potential to mature into bone, muscle or fat. Ad36 is thought to steer the stem cells away from a life in bone and force them to become fat instead.

A 2012 study on the same line of cells supports this idea. Researchers infected human stem cells with Ad36 and another adenovirus, Ad2. Only stem cells infected with Ad36 stored fat.

The link between Ad36 and obesity is clear in animals.

After being deliberately infected with the virus, mice, chickens and marmosets fattened up.

However, the connection is harder to demonstrate in humans. It would be unethical, of course, for researchers to infect humans with a virus to see if they gain weight.

Instead, scientists have used antibody tests to look back in time. Like the UGA researchers, others have tested blood from obese and non-obese people to see if they had been exposed to Ad36 in the past and had antibodies against it.

The first definitive link between fat and Ad36 in humans came in 2005. A group of scientists tested four different viruses and found Ad36 to be the only virus associated with increased weight.

“There is little convincing data [that viruses cause obesity],” said Ralph Tripp, the virologist for the UGA group. “However, we have made a strong association.”

In the future, Rayalam says that their study needs to be repeated at least one more time, especially to look at effects in older adults.

“Because with aging and adiposity, what you see is bone loss,” she said. “We have to see whether with adiposity and Ad36, [we] still have a positive correlation in late adults.”

Eventually, the group hopes to develop a vaccine against Ad36 to stop the production of more fat cells and keep bones strong. Tripp thinks that day will come, though it won’t be tomorrow.

“I think the future is very close for showing this academically; however, it will be a decade away from FDA approval due to compliance and related issues commonly associated with vaccinology,” he said.

The above post is a guest post by Hyacinth Empinado, a graduate student in UGA’s Health and Medical Journalism Program.