Pets Gain Pounds, Just Like Their People


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Veterinarians and animal researchers are seeing an alarming number of overweight pets and are advising owners to take extra steps to keep their pets healthy, Meanwhile, a new group of specialists in Athens is becoming concerned about obesity and unhealthy numbers on the scale.

In a special issue on fitness and health, the Athens Flagpole reports that pets are not only getting fatter, but their fitness levels are suffering, along with their health.

“The trend we’ve been seeing is that as people develop more obesity, pets are, too,” says Cindi Ward, chief medical officer of the University of Georgia’s Small Animal Hospital. “Pets mimic our activity levels, because they live the lives we live.

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Play and Exercise Help Build Brains in Clarke County Public Schools


Obesity Initiative at UGA

University of Georgia researchers are looking at how game playing can increase academic performance.

An article in  Athens’ weekly Flagpole describes how UGA researchers are working with students at Chase Street and Fowler Drive elementary schools to improve academic performance through exercise that includes making decisions, creating strategies and problem solving.

“Adults may be able to run on a treadmill for 45 minutes, but kids don’t want to do that,” McCullick says. “If you want to help them be motivated to exercise, you have to do something they enjoy and feel comfortable doing.”

UGA kinesiology professors Bryan McCullick and Phil Tomporowski have researched the links between physical activity and academic achievement for more than a decade. They developed the physical activity games to build children’s confidence and get them moving outside of recess time.

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UGA Scores at SEC Symposium


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Postdoctoral student Colette Miller and graduate student Parisa Darkhal were award winners at the poster competition that was part of this year’s SEC Symposium, “Prevention of Obesity: Overcoming a 21st Century Public Health Challenge,” held in Atlanta in September.

The two were among six students selected from more than 80 entries, who were awarded honors for their poster presentations.

Miller won the first place award in the postdoctoral student poster competition for her poster, “Efficacy of a dietary phytochemical blend on preventing lipid-induced hepatotoxicity,”  which is based on research performed in her doctoral studies under the direction of the late Clifton A. Baile, who began the Obesity Initiative at UGA.

Miller now conducts research on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and technologies relating to brown adipose tissue under the direction of Rich Meagher, Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Genetics, and on nutrition and aging with Mary Ann Johnson, Bill and June Flatt Professor in Foods and Nutrition, College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“I enjoyed the comprehensive discussion of obesity, which included a transition from basic science to applied nutrition and exercise interventions to prevent obesity,” said Miller. “It was great to be in such a small conference with well-known obesity experts.”

Darkhal won second place in the graduate student division of the poster competition for her poster, “Blocking high fat diet-induced obesity, insulin resistance and fatty liver by over-expression of IL-13 gene in mice.” Dharkal conducts research in the lab under Dexi Liu,  department head, Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences,  College of Pharmacy.

Johnson said that in addition to providing students and postdocs with valuable feedback on their research, “small, welcoming environments like the SEC Symposium help young scientists meet established investigators.”

This year, members of UGA’s Obesity Initiative were featured panelists in each of the SEC Symposium’s eight sessions, which covered the topic of obesity prevention, from genetics and physiology to early influences and workplace strategies to technology and media-based approaches and community actions to promote energy balance.

The SEC Symposium, which is attended by faculty, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, and staff from all 14 SEC schools, had  364 registrants, including 50 from UGA.  UGA was represented by faculty and staff from College of Family and Consumer Sciences, College of Public Health,  College of Education, College of Pharmacy, College of Veterinary Medicine, and Grady College.


“Freshman 15″ More Like 3.5, Not Just for College Students


Obesity Initiative at UGA

College students may not gain the much-dreaded “freshman 15″ but they do gain weight during their years in school, according to a UGA study.
As reported by Reuters Health, researchers found that young adults gained an average of about 3.5 pounds (about 1.6 kg) over their college careers with a relatively small gain during the first year.
“Everyone puts so much emphasis on at first year of college,” said Michael Fedewa, a graduate research assistant in the department of kinesiology, College of Education, and lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Fedewa said the change in weight and body fat during college students’ first year continues on, but the same weight gain also is observed among young adults not in college.

After-School Program to Boost Learning



ChaseSt_pal_program-230x127A multidisciplinary team of University of Georgia faculty is partnering with the Clarke County School District is providing a new after-school enrichment program aimed at improving the children’s health and stimulate their learning in reading and mathematics.

The program currently serves about 60 children in two elementary schools.

“We are bringing together UGA teacher educators, health promotion and kinesiology professors with Clarke County School administrators, staff and parents to provide a hands-on, engaging after-school program that will address the challenges faced by children,” said Phillip Tomporowski, a professor of kinesiology in the College of Education.

The Physical Activity and Learning program is funded by a five-year, $666,193 federal grant from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, administered by the Georgia Department of Education.

The new after-school program is the culmination of more than a decade of research that shows that children’s increased physical activity can lead to higher academic achievement. The methods central to the Physical Activity and Learning program are described in the soon-to-be-released book, “Enhancing Children’s Cognition with Physical Activity Games,” written by Tomporowski and McCullick, who are both participating faculty in UGA’s Obesity Initiative.

Campers Learn Health Eating Habits


Activities, Obesity Initiative at UGA, Outreach

Health-Matters-7-2014-Columns-3Spinach artichoke dip with multigrain bread, corn salad with lime vinaigrette, taco roll ups and fruit kabobs are not teenagers’ usual lunch fare. But thanks to a new summer day camp called Health Matters, Athens-Clarke County teens and their parents now have a taste for healthy and nutritious foods.

As part of the ongoing effort to encourage healthier lifestyles among local residents, UGA Extension partnered with Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services and Athens Regional Health System to coordinate the camp this summer.

The program, which ran for six weeks, addressed a host of health and nutrition topics facing teens and adults alike.

The camp promoted different types of healthful food options and physical activities to children 11 to 14 to help them take responsibility for their own nutrition and fitness.

“We wanted to show campers you can incorporate physical activity and good eating habits into your routine in ways that are fun,” said Leslie Trier, program specialist with Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services. “An active lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean that you play a competitive sport or that you follow a strict diet, although it can include those things.”

The UGA Obesity Initiative pledged five tuition scholarships to attend the Health Matters Camp.

“These funds made it possible to recruit at-risk youth who could not afford the registration fees and otherwise would not have benefited from the program,” said Judy Hibbs, UGA Obesity Initiative member and Extension coordinator.

Athens Regional Health System matched the UGA Obesity Initiative’s contribution, totaling 10 scholarships.

Physical activities included different types of team and individual sports ranging from volleyball and tennis to yoga and swimming.

In the classroom, campers learned about portion size, food safety and how to read food labels among other things. The group took field trips to local eateries, where they learned how to make sensible menu choices.

Education extended to parents who attended weekly classes addressing topics such as cost-effective meal preparation and quick and easy nutritional foods.

View Columns article here.

Help Georgia Get Physical


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Are you willing to help combat obesity in Georgia? University of Georgia Extension needs interested Georgians to test the new Walk Georgia website by registering for the program and logging physical activity online.

Walk Georgia is a Web-based program offered with no registration cost to all Georgians. As a part of UGA Extension, the program is based in communities across Georgia. Extension agents and program staff throughout the state plan community events, meet residents in person and provide incentives in their counties.

Pilot session participants can register for the testing phase of the new Walk Georgia website at and begin tracking their physical activity data online. Participants can create and join groups, or join as an individual. Customizable sessions and goals will be available soon.

A $1 million, three-year grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation allowed for a complete renovation of the Walk Georgia website and the improved program offerings. Goals of this better equipped Walk Georgia program include reaching 100,000 Georgians and decreasing obesity by 5 percent in all Georgia counties over the next three years.

Through the new Walk Georgia website, participants can log on and track their physical activity year-round. The website now scales to mobile devices and will be integrated with popular social media outlets.

Improvements to the Walk Georgia system also make it better suited as a worksite wellness program. Walk Georgia is also being adapted for classroom use. Schools, districts and entire systems can participate in Walk Georgia; competition between classes, grades or schools can be enabled by teachers simply logging aggregate activity data for their class. Walk Georgia-based lesson plans will be available for elementary school teachers this year.

Willing participants in the website’s testing phase are asked to log on to, create an account and begin logging their activity. Sign up for the weekly Walk Georgia newsletter during the registration process or visit the daily blog at to keep track of the pilot’s progress. Email questions and feedback to

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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.”