Teen Take Heart

Nov 5, 2014, 11:00 AM, Posted by

Steven J. Palazzo, PhD, MN, RN, CNE, is an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at Seattle University, and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar (2013 – 2016. ) His research focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of the Teen Take Heart program in mitigating cardiovascular risk factors in at-risk high school students.

Difficult problems demand innovative solutions. Teen Take Heart (TTH) is a program I’ve worked to develop, in partnership with The Hope Heart Institute and with support from the RWJF Nurse Faulty Scholars Program, to address locally a problem we face nationally: an alarming increase in obesity and other modifiable cardiovascular risk factors among teenagers. The problem is substantial and costly in both economic and human terms. We developed TTH as a solution that could, if it proves effective in trials that begin this fall in my native Washington state, be translated to communities across the country.

The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, released recently by the Trust for America’s Health and RWJF, makes it clear that as a nation we are not winning the battle on obesity. The report reveals that a staggering 31.8 percent of children in the United States are overweight or obese and only 25 percent get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. The report also finds that only 5 percent of school districts nationwide have a wellness program that meets the physical education time requirement.

The most recent research study pegs the estimated health costs for obesity-related illness at more than $190 billion—more than 20 percent of total annual medical costs in the United States. Researchers estimate that by 2030 the total health care costs for obesity-related diseases could reach an additional $66 billion annually. As is the case nationally, racial and economic disparities in Washington are considerable, resulting from a complex interaction of issues including poor access to health care, as well as social, cultural, educational, and economic factors.

The 2020 Healthy People health objectives released by the United States Department of Health and Human Services in 2013 suggest that school-based programs hold great potential to be successful in reducing modifiable cardiovascular (CV) risk factors because they reach not only students, but also families and communities. High schools are an ideal place to implement prevention science programs because teenagers spend a significant number of hours there each day, facilities for classroom and physical activity-based lessons are available, teachers with expertise in health and science education are accessible, and most children attend school. Preliminary evidence suggests cardiovascular disease-prevention curricula taught by trained high school teachers result in increased healthy lifestyle choices and decreased risk indicators in students.

Our program, Teen Take Heart, is a school-based cardiovascular health promotion disease-prevention program that aims to reduce health disparities by targeting at-risk teenagers in vulnerable communities. TTH is an innovative, culturally responsive, high-impact, in-class prevention science program facilitated by high school teachers who receive program training during a summer workshop. The TTH modules incorporate the sciences of cardiovascular structure and function, physiology, disease pathology, nutrition and activity, and systematic inquiry into 18 hours of interactive lessons designed to increase CV knowledge and improve heart-healthy lifestyle behaviors.

The TTH curriculum is grounded in the latest evidence-based research and current best practice standards and aligns with the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and state health standards. The materials and teacher training are provided at no cost to participating high schools. At the conclusion of the program, high school students are encouraged to serve as “healthy heart ambassadors” to their communities by organizing and leading community outreach events that connect individuals and families to CV health-related resources.

We are implementing TTH this academic year in five Washington State schools to test how effective the program is at increasing students’ knowledge, developing positive attitudes and beliefs, and forming behavioral intentions related to cardiovascular health and wellness in order to mitigate CV risk-factors. My research team will also collect biometric data and food and activity journals from participating students.

We anticipate the results of the TTH program will help advance the development and implementation of educational and motivational approaches to achieve a healthy lifestyle in underserved high school students. We hope that a secondary benefit of the TTH program will be to strengthen and inspire high school teachers’ innovative approaches to teaching biology and health. That, combined with the students’ experiences in learning about CV health, and their involvement in health advocacy, holds the promise of sparking careers in health and related sciences. Teen Take Heart is intended to be translational and transformative. If successful, it will be a model of how to deploy targeted health promotional educational resources in vulnerable communities.

For more information, please visit our website at: www.teentakeheart.org.


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This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.