Promoting Physical Activity in Low-Income Preschool Children: Local WIC Programs Offer Physical Education Professionals a New Opportunity to Promote Physical Activity

By Spaulding, Carol; Gottlieb, Nell H. et al. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Promoting Physical Activity in Low-Income Preschool Children: Local WIC Programs Offer Physical Education Professionals a New Opportunity to Promote Physical Activity


Spaulding, Carol, Gottlieb, Nell H., Jensen, Jody, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Various child- and family-serving programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), are working to design and conduct interventions that are consistent with the general goal of good health for their clients. Their large participant pools--over eight million participants for WIC, for example--represent a significant opportunity to improve physical activity levels in the preschool population. Many agencies, schools, and programs that serve children are increasingly becoming involved in efforts to prevent childhood obesity and are developing ways to promote more physical activity and better nutrition habits for children and their parents.

The primary purpose of WIC programs, which operate at the local level under an "umbrella" of federal and state programs and policies, is to provide nutritious food and nutrition counseling to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and their children, from birth to age five. Recently, WIC programs in some states have begun to build messages about physical activity into their programming (U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2005), and this new direction offers the opportunity for collaboration with specialists in health education, early childhood movement, and physical education.

Implementing physical activity at the preschool level presents special challenges, such as identifying known promotional factors or determinants, knowing and using objectives or standards for activities, and incorporating theories and evidence from research into the program. Nutritional professionals staff WIC agencies, and they are generally comfortable with using evidence-based program material. However, their areas of expertise may not extend to child motor development or preschool physical activity, and they may or may not be familiar with health education principles.

For this reason, professionals in health and physical education are in a unique position to work with WIC in promoting theory- and evidence-based physical activity interventions for preschool children. Through their knowledge about best practices, child movement and activity professionals can make significant contributions toward the goal of improving the health of the most vulnerable children. Undergraduate and graduate students can also contribute through service-learning activities. This article gives some background material and recommendations for collaborating with WIC programs.

Importance of Physical Activity for Young Children

Establishing and maintaining physical activity in preschool-age children may be one step in solving the problem of childhood obesity. The extent of this public health epidemic (Baranowski et al., 2000) among preschool-age children in the United States is reflected in reports from the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; Polhamus et al., 2004). The data for these reports come from state and local agencies, including the WIC program, that receive federal funding and serve low-income children. For preschoolers, this national reporting system uses the terms "at risk of overweight" and "overweight," instead of the term "obesity." In 2003, over 30 percent of the three- and four-year-olds included in the national reporting system fell into the "at risk of overweight" (between the 85th and 95th percentile of BMI-for-age) or "overweight" (above the 95th percentile of BMI-for-age) categories, with almost 17 percent of toddlers between 12 and 23 months old falling above the 95th percentile. The proportion of children under five who are overweight increased by almost 35 percent between 1995 and 2004 (Polhamus et al.).

Children who develop obesity early in life usually struggle with obesity throughout childhood and into adulthood and are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as diabetes (Baranowski, Klesges, Cullen, & Himes, 2004; Trost, Sirard, Dowda, Pfeiffer, & Pate, 2003). …

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