Montana State University

MSU program will study what helps rural Montanans make healthy choices

June 15, 2009 -- By Carol Flaherty MSU News Service


Lynn Paul, MSU Extension nutrition specialist   High-Res Available

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A research project at Montana State University may help shape future health programs for rural areas around the country.

MSU Extension Food and Nutrition and 4-H, and MSU's Department of Psychology have received a $1.5 million four-year grant from the USDA to design, conduct and assess a healthy-living program that offers information and opportunities for improving physical activity, nutrition and body image to parents in rural areas.

"We know this can't be just another health program," said Lynn Paul, MSU Extension nutrition specialist and the principal investigator on the study. "It has to fit the lifestyle of busy people in rural areas."

Jill Martz, director of MSU Extension's 4-H Center for Youth Development, and Wes Lynch, former department head of psychology, are the other investigators on the study.

Because of the established communications network and family involvement in 4-H, an initial target audience will be the parents of 4-H youth, said Martz. However, after the initial study is completed, the program will be open to all Montana parents.

Part of the study will examine to what degree a program aimed at supporting healthy lifestyle choices in one generation influences the next generation. The program for parents will provide both hand-on experiences and information. Results will be collected from both parents and children and will include physical measures such as heart rate, body mass index and breathing capacity, as well as factors such as how participants feel about themselves.

"It's the assessment part of this program that you wouldn't see in a typical 'help people' program," said Lynch, who will be in charge of assessment and data analysis. "We're trying to find out what works in rural areas, where people don't have the resources of a nearby gym or sports club."

Because of the research aspect of the program, participants and 4-H clubs will be given incentives for participation and to help defray costs. The program itself will take nine months with assessment at both the beginning and the end. A control group for the initial process will have access to the program after the first group is done.

Paul said that part of the project is intended to find out what people are doing right in their lives and then find ways to support those choices.

"Unhealthy trends in America pull at all of us," Paul said. "Sedentary lifestyles and eating food that is quick but not always nutritious put us all at risk."

One of the motivations behind the USDA funding research into what supports healthy choices is that health care costs are reduced when a person commits to living healthier, said Lynch.

MSU Extension has a track record of providing healthy lifestyle information and programs in rural areas. Its "Strong Women" program now underway throughout Montana has attracted hundreds of participants, and it also has offered programs like "Steps to a New You" and, before that, "Wellness in the Rockies."

Lynch said he hopes parents will understand that, in addition to getting a helpful experience for themselves and their family, they will be "a part of an important scientific study to determine how to slow this nationwide progression to obesity."

Paul described plans for the program as "interactive, fun, hands-on, practical and with very little lecture involved."

Contact: Lynn Paul (406) 994- 5702 or lpaul@montana.edu; Wes Lynch (406) 994-3803 or wlynch@montana.edu; Jill Martz (406) 994-3099 or jmartz@montana.edu