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UCLA Professor Urges Foundation Staffers to Push Physical Activity

March 24th, 2011

By Lee-Lee Prina

This is the second in a series of short posts on my trip to Los Angeles to cover the Grantmakers In Health (GIH) Annual Meeting earlier this month.

Humans need physical activity as much as they need food. Unfortunately, they have no internal prompt to be active, and they are programmed to be sedentary, said Antronette (“Toni”) Yancey, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Health.

She holds both a master’s degree in public health and a medical degree. Also, she has been director of public health for the city of Richmond, Virginia, and director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Yancey, the GIH meeting’s opening plenary speaker and a member of the Partnership for a Healthier America, the nonprofit founded to support First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity, commented that efforts to get people to exercise more are not effective; we need “social prompts.” She advocates “push” interventions, such as “walking meetings” and auto-free zones. A meeting attendee asked how you conduct a walking meeting. Yancey responded: By having smaller meetings, weekly, where those attending don’t need to write down much as they walk and talk.

Yancey is the author of Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation Ten Minutes at a Time (University of California Press), which was published in November. (An “Instant Recess” is a ten-minute or so break for exercise that can occur in schools, offices, or elsewhere in the community, the publisher explains.) Watch a September 2009 video on YouTube about the concept of Instant Recess in offices.

She talked about what GIH member foundations should do to encourage more physical activity in the United States. In the past, foundations required grantees to have smoke-free offices (until this was rendered unnecessary by federal regulatory and state/local legislative policy, Yancey pointed out to me later). Now, funders can “lead by example” by demonstrating a culture of healthy eating and active living within the foundation office(s). Foundations can also require that grantees practice healthy eating and an active lifestyle in their organizations.

Yancey later suggested that foundations fund grantees to modify sports rules to make practice sessions more continuously active for the children involved and support non-sports alternatives for kids, such as walking and running clubs. Actually, only a small subset of kids participate in team sports, she commented. She also highlighted the key role that foundations played in catalyzing the development of active, or physical, video games such as the Wii.

In fact, during her plenary speech, she directed the ballroom full of foundation staffers to get up out of their chairs and do a few minutes of exercise right there—that meant everyone, fat or thin, young or old! I felt a little self-conscious there in front of numerous foundation contacts I write about, but Yancey had a point: this is easy and low-cost and has to be better than being constantly sedentary all day at work.

The point is, Yancey said, Instant Recess-type physical activity is low-cost and can be done anywhere, anytime.

She noted that she coauthored a literature review that was published in the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine; it presented evidence that short periods of exercise are effective. Most of the articles reviewed involved schools. Read the abstract here.

Yancey mentioned the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national program called Active Living Research (Building the Evidence to Prevent Childhood Obesity and Support Active Communities) in her speech. I see that she was co-principal investigator on a 2006–2009 grant awarded by this RWJF program.

She also mentioned that the California Endowment “walks the talk” of getting more physical activity at work. Staffers there take one or two physical activity breaks a day. (Yancey told me later that they also put “recess” breaks on meeting agendas in their outreach activities.)

In addition, Yancey referenced the San Diego Padres baseball team’s efforts to provide food that is more healthy (yet not too expensive) at the PETCO Park (ballpark). I looked it up, and the California Endowment and the team have a fitness initiative called FriarFit, announced in this 2008 press release, “to improve the health and fitness of San Diegans.” It involves the local ballpark, schools, and community. Yancey was also involved with this initiative: She produced a ten-minute Instant Recess exercise video for schoolchildren. It was set to music and included the participation of baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, who played for the Padres (and other teams) and still works for

the team, and other players, according to FriarFit’s website and Wikipedia.

There’s an idea that foundations in other cities with baseball teams can try!

Numerous funders supported GIH’s Annual Meeting. They include the Aetna, Ahmanson, Archstone, California HealthCare, California Wellness, Colorado Health, Consumer Health, DentaQuest, Robert Wood Johnson, W.K. Kellogg, Marisla, Gordon and Betty Moore, David and Lucile Packard, Fannie E. Rippel, Samueli, Staunton Farm, and Sunflower Foundations; as well as the California Endowment, Kaiser Permanente, the Missouri Foundation for Health, and the federal government.