Mount Sinai Researchers Show That Early Intervention in Preschool Is a Unique Opportunity for Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle
New Study Proves Educating Young Children on Health and Fitness Is Effective
Children may have a better chance of avoiding unhealthy habits linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease later in life if they are taught properly about healthy behaviors in preschool, Mount Sinai researchers have shown in a first-of-its-kind study.
The researchers focused on children living in a socioeconomically disadvantaged community, a situation that is commonly linked to higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and other health issues. Valentin Fuster, MD, PhD, Director of Mount Sinai Heart and Physician-in-Chief of The Mount Sinai Hospital, created and led the trial, called the FAMILIA Project at Mount Sinai Heart. The results were published in the April 22 online issue of Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
“The interventions that we applied in the school system are low cost and easy to implement, and we hope in time they can be integrated into schools across the country to promote healthy behaviors among children to ultimately reduce their risk factors for developing heart disease throughout their lives,” explained Dr. Fuster. “Results from this new study prove early intervention is effective in preschool-age children, but we believe this can also promote healthy behaviors among their caregivers and teachers and have a far-reaching impact.”
Researchers analyzed 562 preschoolers (ages three to five) in 15 different Head Start schools in Harlem, in New York City’s borough of Manhattan. Harlem’s population is predominantly African American and Latino, groups that experience a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Two groups of children went through the trial for one four-month period between 2015 and 2018. At the beginning of the study, all children answered a simple questionnaire, which included pictures for easier comprehension, to test their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors regarding diet, physical activity, how the human body and heart works, and emotions. For example, the children were asked to pick out which foods were healthier in a cluster that included vegetables, fruits, and cheeseburgers/fries. They were also asked how often they run, jump, and play.
Children in six preschools (the control group) went through their regular classroom curriculum, while children in the other nine preschools (the intervention group) went through a different learning program created by cardiologists, psychologists, and educators. In 38 hours of classwork over the four-month period, teachers taught the intervention-group preschoolers about healthy diet, physical activity, how the human body works, and managing emotions. Caregivers were also told to engage in 12 hours of specific activities with their children on weekends during the four months, including buying fresh fruit at the grocery store and choosing physical activity over sedentary behavior.
After the four months, researchers gave that same questionnaire to children in both the control and intervention groups and then compared them. Preschoolers in the intervention group improved their knowledge and attitudes toward a healthy lifestyle by 12 percent, more than twice as much as the control group at 5.5 percent. (The control group was expected to improve, as the regular curriculum included a component of health education.) Children in the interventional group with the lowest questionnaire scores at the start of the study improved the most, and those who got at least 75 percent of the interventional curriculum fared better than those who received less than half of it (this also confirms the efficacy of the intervention and if it was if the intervention was successfully implemented). Additionally, researchers found the curriculum was more effective for four-year-olds than three-year-olds, suggesting that that could be the ideal age for starting the intervention because four-year-olds are more mature and able to better retain information.
This study follows other successful interventions led by Dr. Fuster in Colombia and Spain, but FAMILIA is unique in being the first time the health promotion curriculum was implemented in a multi-ethnic, underprivileged urban population. Dr. Fuster and his team plan to expand the program across the five boroughs of New York City. This ambitious project will also evaluate how family socioeconomic status and teachers´ characteristics may affect the implementation and the efficacy of school-based health promotion programs.
The FAMILIA project was funded by a grant from the American Heart Association.
About the Mount Sinai Health System
Mount Sinai Health System is one of the largest academic medical systems in the New York metro area, with more than 43,000 employees working across eight hospitals, over 400 outpatient practices, nearly 300 labs, a school of nursing, and a leading school of medicine and graduate education. Mount Sinai advances health for all people, everywhere, by taking on the most complex health care challenges of our time — discovering and applying new scientific learning and knowledge; developing safer, more effective treatments; educating the next generation of medical leaders and innovators; and supporting local communities by delivering high-quality care to all who need it.
Through the integration of its hospitals, labs, and schools, Mount Sinai offers comprehensive health care solutions from birth through geriatrics, leveraging innovative approaches such as artificial intelligence and informatics while keeping patients’ medical and emotional needs at the center of all treatment. The Health System includes approximately 7,300 primary and specialty care physicians; 13 joint-venture outpatient surgery centers throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester, Long Island, and Florida; and more than 30 affiliated community health centers. We are consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report's Best Hospitals, receiving high "Honor Roll" status, and are highly ranked: No. 1 in Geriatrics and top 20 in Cardiology/Heart Surgery, Diabetes/Endocrinology, Gastroenterology/GI Surgery, Neurology/Neurosurgery, Orthopedics, Pulmonology/Lung Surgery, Rehabilitation, and Urology. New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai is ranked No. 12 in Ophthalmology. U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Children’s Hospitals” ranks Mount Sinai Kravis Children's Hospital among the country’s best in several pediatric specialties.