NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Men who participated in a community fitness program for obese fathers lost weight and increased their activity levels in a new study from Australia.
The researchers' main goal was to test the 'Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids' program in a real-world setting to see if it helped reduce obesity among the men participating - with the hope it would improve the eating habits and activity levels of their children too.
"Internationally, obesity in men and obesity prevention in children are public health priorities," Philip Morgan, who led the study, told Reuters Health in an email.
Morgan is a researcher with the Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition at the University of Newcastle in Callaghan, New South Wales.
"Fathers have a unique and important role in the lifestyle behaviors of their children, yet little is known about how best to engage them in lifestyle interventions," Morgan said.
Morgan said that Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids is unique as it engages dads to become family role models and spend quality time with their children using exercise and healthy eating as the engagement medium.
"Children become 'personal trainers' for their dads - innovatively applying 'reciprocal reinforcement' theory. This program engages men, a hard-to-reach group, and children simultaneously -a more cost-effective approach than separate programs," Morgan said.
For the new study, Morgan and colleagues enrolled 116 overweight and obese fathers along with their elementary school aged children in 2010 to 2011. A total of 93 men - and their children - completed the study.
The participants were divided into two groups. The members of one group participated in the Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids program and other others were put on a waiting list, which was used as a comparison group. (After the study was over, those men got to do the program).
The researchers took baseline measurements of all the participants during the two weeks before the program began. They measured the height, weight, blood pressure and heart rate of each man and asked about his daily physical activity and eating habits.
The Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids program included seven weeks of group sessions - four for just the fathers and three with both fathers and kids - taught by physical education teachers who had been specially trained.
The fathers were taught about weight loss, healthy eating, how to get their kids more active, and how to sustain a healthy lifestyle.
The participants were also given manuals and logbooks to take home to keep track of their progress.
The fathers and kids in the group on the waiting list were not given any health or fitness information during the study.
Physical measurements and assessments were repeated 14 weeks after the program began.
The researchers found that fathers who completed the Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids program lost, on average, about 7.5 pounds, compared to the fathers on the waiting list who stayed about the same. The fathers on the program also increased their physical activity levels, cut their daily calorie intakes and reduced their resting heart rates compared to the wait-list group.
"Significant intervention effects were found for fathers' weight, BMI, waist circumference, resting heart rate, physical activity levels, and dietary intake. For children, intervention effects were found for adiposity and physical activity," Morgan said.
"Clearly the role of the parent in our children's health is of paramount importance," Jacob Barkley, an associate professor of exercise science at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, told Reuters Health in an email.
"These results demonstrate how a father may not just benefit themselves by changing their health behaviors, but they may have a measurable benefit to their children as well," said Barkley, who was not involved in the study.
Barkley said the fact that the study was done in a community setting - not in a laboratory - improved the ability to generalize the results to the real world.
A program like this is something that could be implemented fairly easily in a variety of countries, including the United States, he said.
"The evidence strongly suggest that if you are a father, and are concerned with the your child's weight and physical activity habits, you may want to change your own behavior. It could benefit you and your kids," Barkley said.
SOURCE: Preventive Medicine, online December 29, 2013.