A New Center Sets Sights on a Healthier Future for Nation’s Children

Georgia Tech, University of California San Diego, Johns Hopkins, and North Carolina State University have teamed up to launch the Physical Activity Research Center (PARC), a new type of collaboration that aims to improve the health of our nation’s youth through physical activity.

Faculty from these four universities, with backgrounds in medicine, public health, city planning, and parks and recreation, will provide research to inform policy changes that will help make physical activity an everyday experience for all American children. PARC will focus on children in lower-income communities, often part of African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander ethnicity groups, who typically have fewer opportunities to be active. This lack of physical activity contributes to obesity, mental health problems, and increased risk for diseases in adulthood.

“The persistent disparities in physical activity and obesity will be addressed by PARC. We are focusing our studies on finding solutions that are appropriate for children from highly diverse racial and ethnic groups as well as those from low-income communities,” said Jim Sallis, PhD, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at University of California San Diego School of Medicine , co-Director of PARC.

“We need to understand what policy, environment and other motivators will get lower-income African American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander and Native American children playing, running, jumping, kicking and swinging. The Physical Activity Research Center will answer these questions and partner with community organizations to get our kids moving” said Nisha Botchwey, Georgia Institute of Technology School of City and Regional Planning, co-Director of PARC.

PARC received a $3 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to fuel their efforts. RWJF supports evidence-based strategies that aim to make physical activity part of a child’s daily routine. The Foundation is working to build an inclusive Culture of Health across America to ensure that all children have opportunities to grow up at a healthy weight.

“Kids, especially those who are underserved, need opportunities to be physically active in their neighborhoods and schools every day,” said Tina Kauh, lead RWJF Program Officer. “PARC will focus on finding solutions to help our most vulnerable kids be more active. This is critical for fostering lifelong healthy habits and promoting health equity within our communities and across our country.”

“The unique nature of PARC is reflected in my participation in PARC, I am on an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignment to PARC and Georgia Tech from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Tom Schmid. “CDC has a long history of collaborating on strategies to promote physical activity and healthy weight with programs supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We are excited to continue this relationship with PARC which will provide valuable access to effective strategies for promoting physical activity in youth, especially minority youth in high need communities.”

Why PARC is Different?

Previous studies focused on promoting physical activity among youth, and examined education, programming, and environmental change with some progress noted overall. Unfortunately, a closer look at where gains were made shows that the disparity gap in physical activity and health remains and is wider today than in previous years. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in 2011-2014, the obesity rate among white youth was 14.7% while the obesity rate was 19.7% among black youth and 21.9% among Hispanic Youth.

PARC will conduct four targeted studies to inform policy, systems, and environmental change strategies that promote child well-being, and share findings from PARC-funded research to a broad audience. It will accelerate the application of research into practice through targeted information sharing with local, regional and national youth serving organizations and other stakeholders working to advance children’s health.

Botchwey from Georgia Tech will assess how policy development and training youth to be advocates for changes in the built environment can foster health and produce positive policy and environmental change.

Sallis from UC San Diego will examine summertime youth physical activity patterns. Youth tend to gain weight during the summer, in particular black and Latino children. This study will identify opportunities to increase their physical activity and maintain a healthy weight. 

Pollack from Johns Hopkins will examine whether culturally relevant Play Streets can be adapted to low-income rural communities to increase physical activity among elementary and middle school-aged children.

Floyd from NCSU will study public park use and physical activity among children in lower-income and racial and ethnic minority communities in Raleigh-Durham and New York City. The findings will inform planning decisions for city parks by providing information about how park design can improve recreational opportunities and programs for underserved populations.

All studies conducted under PARC will address multiple racial and ethnic groups, focusing on children and youth who experience inequities in opportunities to be physically active. PARC studies will not only have the potential to help children engage in physically active lifestyles, but will also have clear implications for policy and practice.  

Coordination of the Center is managed by a team in the  Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego.

To find out more about PARC email Chad Spoon at scspoon@ucsd.edu.

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