UNT researchers working to curb obesity in minority children with physical activity promotion

A family rides bicycles through a residential neighborhood on a sunny day.DENTON (UNT), Texas — Learning good habits at an early age can set children up for a lifetime of success, and that includes understanding the benefits of an active lifestyle, according to professors in the University of North Texas College of Education.

With a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Tao Zhang and Jean Keller, faculty members in the Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation, are exploring whether a physical activity promotion program — administered through Head Start and by parents at home — can improve health outcomes for preschoolers from underserved communities.

Childhood obesity remains prevalent in the U.S., with nearly 19% of people ages 2-19 considered to have obesity by the CDC. Those numbers are higher in Texas, especially for communities of color, where nearly 40% of children have obesity, according to Zhang, who serves as director of UNT’s Pediatric Movement and Physical Activity Laboratory.

“We want to help these children live healthier, more meaningful lives, and that starts with establishing good physical activity habits at a young age,” Zhang said.

Minority Obesity Vanquished with Education, or Project MOVE, will focus on integrating a comprehensive, developmentally and culturally appropriate physical activity intervention into preschool curriculum at 14 Head Start centers in Fort Worth. Head Start is a federally funded early childhood development program for low-income children.

Part of the two-year project will be educating parents about bringing more physical activity into their home environments, including home toolkits with instructions and materials needed for family-friendly activities that encourage movement. Taking advantage of resources such as parks, walking trails and recreation centers available in their local communities will be encouraged as well.

“When children don’t have basic motor skills, they won’t engage in sports and other physical activities. Through our evidence-based physical activities aligned with their cognitive development, we’ll make sure those motor skills are developed at a young age so they can easily get involved with other activities as they age and get into school,” Keller said.

Project MOVE is one of many UNT research projects aimed at lessening longstanding racial and ethnic health disparities. Through UNT’s Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society, faculty members across disciplines are researching the educational, economic, environmental and social determinants of health to enhance the quality of life for underserved populations across Texas.

“We know there are health disparities in Latinx and Black communities. The economic, environmental, educational and social components of a community — they all work together. When all of those pieces aren’t working well, you see declines in health for individuals — physically, mentally and socially. Our hope is to help these young children, their caregivers and families understand how important physical activity is to their overall health and wellbeing,” Keller said.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108


Heather Noel