Travel across the state with Walk Georgia


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Following Interstate 75, it would take the average person around five full days to walk across the state of Georgia. But if you can’t take that much time off work, try traversing Georgia virtually with Walk Georgia, a UGA Cooperative Extension fitness program that started this week.


Participants track their physical activity online for 12 weeks – either as an individual or a 4-person team.  Time spent in various forms of physical activity – from biking to bowling – is translated into miles “walked” across the state.  As the exercisers log miles, they will move across a virtual map of Georgia and learn fun facts about the different counties they visit. Walkers can also see how their activity compares to others in the program – with the goal for all participants to reach at least 15 miles per week.

Email registration for the program opened Sept. 1 and will last until Oct. 9. Members can begin logging their miles right away and have until Nov. 23 to make their way across the state.  Check out to register or get more details.

Doctoring differently


Obesity in the News, Obesity Initiative at UGA

More Americans are dying from cardiovascular disease each year than people in France, Japan or Israel. Obesity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and America also has a greater percentage of obese people than any of these countries do.

UGA researchers traveled to France, Israel and Japan to see if these trends might be related to the way doctors in the different countries interact with their patients, according to a recent article in the Athens Banner-Herald.

 “We’re trying to figure out what is really happening when these visits with the doctors occur,” said Colleen O’Brien Cherry, an assistant research scientist at UGA’s Center for Global Health, told the Banner-Herald. “If the doctor is having a direct effect, that will help explain the lower cardiovascular death rates in these other countries.”

Most U.S. doctors didn’t talk about obesity with their patients at all, according to Cherry’s study.  However, in France doctors were much more likely to ask patients who gained weight about their eating habits and lifestyle.

Cherry and collaborator Richard Schuster, who is the director of the Center for Global Health in UGA’s College of Public Health, hope the research can be used to help improve the health care system in the U.S.

Read the rest of the Athens Banner-Herald article here.

Could obesity lead to lower pay?


Obesity in the News, Obesity Initiative at UGA

Obesity rates vary by income, according to the 2013 F as in Fat annual report, published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health.  However, does obesity actually lead to low wages? Michael Kofoed hopes to find out.

Kofoed, who is an economics doctoral student in the UGA Terry College of Business, is working with the Obesity Initiative to study the influence of obesity on unemployment and wages in the U.S. and Canada.  Companies hoping to be profitable base an employee’s wages on what they contribute to the firm’s productivity, and obesity reduces this productivity, Kofoed told the Athens Banner-Herald.

“If I become less productive because I become less healthy due to obesity, the firm logically will pay me less.”

His study “Is it better to be overweight in Canada or the United States?” also considers whether a country’s insurance system affects wages obese people receive.  According to Kofoed, an employer-based health insurance system, like the U.S. system, means companies pay for their employees’ obesity-related health problems.  In a single-payer system, like Canada’s system, the government pays for health insurance. In this system, obesity may have less of influence on wages because employers don’t pay for obesity-related health problems.

“I’m hoping to show people the connection between their health and their labor market outcome and hope my findings might offer another reason to motivate people to become more healthy,” he said.

Read more in the Athens Banner-Herald article.

Not a one-man job


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Fighting obesity requires more than just a well-informed dietitian or personal trainer. “It takes a village to overcome obesity,” according to a recent Red and Black editorial by Laura Thompson. And UGA’s Obesity Initiative is helping the school become that village, for the sake of its students and for the rest of the state.

According to Thompson, UGA has made great strides in combating the problem and should continue to use the campus-wide initiative to fight obesity in ways beyond the obvious.  When it comes to obesity education, anyone who can influence others should be tasked with advocating healthy practices.

“In order for the state to truly take control of its weight, obesity awareness needs to be common knowledge. We don’t need another 24-hour gym or organic smoothie stand, but rather, a shift toward a culture that challenges people and encourages them to carefully evaluate what is best for their bodies.”

Now that the university has taken the first step, Thompson says it’s the students responsibility to carry the message past the Arch.

Read the entire Red and Black editorial.

Obesity: A risk to next generation


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Taking the vitamin folate before and after conception in an adequate dose greatly reduces the risk of the birth defect known as a neural tube. But says, Lynn Bailey, a professor and department head in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA, “Obese women have lower blood levels of folate regardless of how much food folate they consume.”

“Obese women have a threefold increased risk for a neural-tube-affected pregnancy, and the state of Georgia has a higher percentage of obesity in women of reproductive age and a higher percentage of babies born with neural-tube defects than other states, so the research is very relevant to our home state.”

Bailey, who published her research in a peer-reviewed journal earlier this year, wants to get that information out to the public, and to clinicians.  She told the Athens Banner Herald, “Women will change their behavior and take a folate supplement if their health care provider or someone they trust provides the information (that it will lead to a healthier pregnancy).”

Read more.

Seniors are different when it comes to weight loss


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Diet and exercise — that’s the weight loss prescription that works for most people. But seniors are different, says Ellen Evans, UGA associate professor in the department of kinesiology, and the director for the Center for Physical Activity and Health.

She told the Athens Banner-Herald, “Older adults have complications such as medications and illnesses. It’s not like taking a college student who’s relatively healthy but overweight and telling them to diet and exercise. The prescriptions delivered to both of them about activity and eating have to be tailored.”

Evans co-leads the Obesity and Exercise Team through the UGA Obesity Initiative at the University of Georgia with Mary Ann Johnson, a professor in Foods and Nutrition in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Through the Obesity Initiative, Johnson collaborates with local, state and federal agencies to improve the health and well-being of older adults.

“The highest prevalence of obesity in the U.S. is among the older adult population,” Johnson said. “They also bear the most burden from obesity in terms of obesity-related disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, functional limitations and other health problems.” 

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society titled “Strategies to improve diet in older adults,” Johnson wrote that in the U.S. in 2009-10, the prevalence of obesity was highest among men ages 40 to 59 years old (about 37.2 percent) and women ages 60 years old and older (about 42.3 percent), according to the World Health Organization.

Adults ages 65 years old and older in the U.S. are reported to have a 27 percent prevalence of diabetes and account for 42 percent of all cases of diabetes. Obesity and diabetes also are seen as risk factors for nursing home admission, particularly for obesity among those ages 65 years old and older.

“We know obesity is one of the main determinants of nursing home admissions, because when a person is obese as an older adult, they don’t have the muscle mass to carry the load, and they become sedentary,” Evans said. “Family members of older adults will then have trouble caring for their loved ones if they are obese because they may not be able to move them around to care for them.”

Read the entire Athens Banner-Herald story.

What does graduate instruction in obesity and weight management look like?


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Faculty from across UGA and other universities throughout the Southeast this week made initial steps toward a the goal of developing graduate interdisciplinary instruction in obesity and weight management. Over 60 people attended the UGA state-of-the-art conference to define the knowledge and skills a multidisciplinary workforce needs to address the nationwide obesity epidemic, and identify best practices in graduate education in obesity.

Keynote speaker Sharon Donovan, PhD, RD,  who leads the Illinois Trans-disciplinary Obesity Prevention Program at U of Illinois, challenged the group to think not just about how to make such a program multi-displinary, or even inter-disciplinary, but to cross boundaries by making it trans-disciplinary. Obesity, she  noted, is multi-factorial, and thus requires putting knowledge into practice “from cell to community” and “innovation to intervention.”

In closing the conference, Ron Cervero, UGA associate vice president for instruction, acknowledged that solutions to real-world problems do not fit neatly into university structures,  and that there can be so many barriers “it can feel like crossing a crowded intersection with your eyes closed.”  Yet, he said, the mission of land-grant university — research, instruction and outreach — is what a trans-disciplinary obesity program is all about.

Presentations from the conference will be posted here.

Virtual Environments



UGA researchers are taking the battle against obesity into the virtual world. Using advanced computer simulations, specially designed avatars, virtual pets and interactive games, they hope to help students better understand how the choices they make affect their health.

“Just as the anti-smoking campaign changed the way people think, we need to use a multi-platform approach with social media to make an impact on obesity,” said Grace Ahn, an assistant professor of advertising in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Virtual environments help people to see the causality between what they eat and how it affects their bodies.”

During a simulation in Ahn’s virtual environment lab, a user can see what his or her avatar will look like 20 years from now. When students don a headset that covers the eyes, they see an animated reflection of themselves that ages-perhaps even gaining weight-as months and years pass by on a calendar next to the face.

“Research shows that virtual environments are doing the best in terms of truly modifying people’s behaviors because it allows them to see that cause and effect relationship,” Ahn said.

This spring, a First-Year Odyssey seminar taught by Scott Brown, a Meigs Professor and the Edward H. Gunst Professor of Small Animal Studies in the College of Veterinary Medicine, focused on kidney disease, which strongly is associated with obesity.

Brown recently was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health, to improve student engagement in biomedical research through interactive technologies.

As part of the class, students will use new gaming software to act virtually like health professionals who are treating kidney disease patients. By flying into a dialysis machine and using components of the machine, the students will observe how their suggested changes affect the patient’s health.

“I’m hoping this will improve undergraduate education and understanding about obesity, diabetes and kidney disease,” Brown said.

On another part of campus, Kyle Johnsen, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, is helping elementary schoolchildren understand the causes and complications of obesity.

During one study, a group of Georgia 4-H students learned the caloric density of different foods by using a haptic joystick, a device connected to a computer that allows the user to “feel” the physical properties of virtual objects by providing sensory feedback.

For example, Johnsen said, “water, chocolate milk and juice may feel the same until you switch the program to caloric density.”

Students often are surprised when picking up a potato versus fries or potato chips, he said. Although chips are much lighter than a whole potato, it’s heavier in the virtual world because they are full of calories rather than nutrients.

Now Johnsen and others are developing additional interfaces to allow students to compare the caloric contents of carbohydrates, proteins and fats and build a balanced plate of food.

In another project, Johnsen is linking the virtual world to the real-world effects of physical activity by asking students to take care of a virtual pet. The children will wear special pedometers that track their physical activity and diet, and they will be able to “fly into” the dog to see and feel the effects of obesity on the pet’s weight, energy and happiness.

Understanding Diabetes Through Virtual Gaming



When Scott Brown thinks about the future of education, he sees his undergraduate students taking notes on tablets and looking at 3-D models while maneuvering textbook pages with the flick of a finger.

Brown, professor of physiology and pharmacology and small animal medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine, imagines veterinary offices running the same way, with providers using handheld tablets to show pet owners exactly what is wrong with their animals and how procedures will help them.

“Technology is going to be everywhere, even more than now,” said Brown. “We need to be at the cutting edge. We’ll fail in our teaching approaches otherwise.”

Brown received a $525,000, five-year grant to design, create and test interactive gaming technology that helps undergraduate students learn more about renal and cardiovascular physiology, diabetes and obesity by acting as virtual scientists studying renal physiology in a virtual research laboratory.

Funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the software will allow students to learn kidney functions by watching molecules interact and investigating tubular processes at microscopic levels. Students will also work on three digital case studies, allowing them to virtually examine renal and cardiac function of both healthy patients and those suffering from kidney disease and heart disease.

“The financial burden of diabetes is astronomical, and it’s rising dramatically,” he said. “Even if the current obesity trend hits a plateau, diabetes follows the onset of obesity by 10 to 20 years, so we will have this problem for decades to come. We need tools to help young people understand this.”

The research project is funded by the NIH grant 1R25DK094760 – 01A1.

Preventing Diabetes in Patients with Mobility Disabilities



Improvements in medical care have made it possible for paraplegics to live much longer than they would have in the past. However, living longer lives means they also must wrestle with common health problems other populations often face, including diabetes. In people with diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or their bodies aren’t able to use the insulin properly, which can lead to serious complications such as kidney failure, heart disease and blindness.

“People who are paralyzed are three to four times more likely to become diabetic,” said UGA researcher Kevin McCully, director of the Exercise Vascular Biology Laboratory in the College of Education’s department of kinesiology.

McCully and co-investigators from Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the nation, are investigating using electrical stimulation as a way of exercising leg muscles among people with mobility disabilities, with the goal of reducing complications from diabetes.

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