2018-19 Annual Report

Program helps kids ‘Wiggle’ their way to fitness

University of West Florida researchers and health officials in Escambia County are collaborating on an innovative program to curb area childhood obesity rates by increasing physical activity among preschoolers.

Dr. Debra Vinci, chair of the Department of Movement Sciences and Health, and Dr. Christopher Wirth, assistant professor in the Department of Movement Sciences and Health, were awarded a multi-year grant from the Florida Department of Health in Escambia to develop and implement “Let’s Wiggle 5-2-1-0” workshops for Escambia County.

The initiative, which is also a collaboration with the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, is all about children ages 3-5 “getting their wiggles out” by incorporating physical activity in the classroom. Studies from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute show that 34 percent of preschool students and students in grades 1 to 3 are overweight or obese.

“The target population was the preschool age because we are really trying to look at providing good information in the early years with the belief those early years will help set the baseline for children and their families,” Vinci said.

The numbers 5-2-1-0 correlate to daily health recommendations for children: Eat five or more fruits and vegetables; restrict screen time to two hours or less; have at least one hour of physical activity; and consume zero sugary drinks.

As part of the pilot program in 2015, Vinci and Wirth trained 16 child care providers. Undergraduate and graduate students from UWF were on hand to demonstrate how to do each activity.

Wirth said a subsequent roundtable discussion gave teachers the chance to discuss how they could implement the ‘Let’s Wiggle with 5-2-1-0’ program in their curriculum.

“The teachers were throwing out ideas – ‘I can do this with math; I can do this with science,’” Wirth said.

While some of the teachers initially wondered whether encouraging children to be more physically active in the classroom would lead to more behavioral problems, the results of the program showed that students were actually more on task in the classroom because of it.

“Because (the teachers) were able to get the kids up, and they did get their wiggles out, and then they were able to use the different activities,” Vinci said. “Some of the activities would allow them to do counting and colors. And so they were able to use the activity as part of their lesson plans.”

During the second year of the program, UWF researchers trained 145 childcare providers in Pensacola.

“In Escambia County, we’ve been to 29 child care centers over the past two years and 16 (home-based child care) centers,” Vinci said.

Follow-up research showed that teachers were incorporating the ‘Let’s Wiggle with 5-2-1-0’ program into their lesson plans and an overall increase of moderate to vigorous physical activity among students.

The project has also resulted in the publication of a book, “Walker Finds His Wiggle,” in which the main character, a dog named Walter Wiggle, teaches kids different ways to be active.

“There are 10 different movements in there that provides them opportunities to wiggle,” Vinci said.

Another children’s book, which focuses on ways to decrease sedentary behavior, is also in the works.

Vinci, Wirth and the rest of the UWF team have presented their findings before meetings of the American Public Health Association and Society for Behavioral Medicine and recently won first place for their poster presentation at a conference held in Scotland.

“We’ve been presenting our data nationally and internationally,” Vinci said.