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IEEM Begins Childhood Obesity Initiative

Research Study Strives to Make Life Better for Children, Families

Childhood obesity is a rapidly growing health issue of epidemic proportion. Since 1979, the prevalence of childhood obesity in the U.S. has quadrupled to 19 percent for children 6-11 years with 40 percent of Texas children considered obese.

Obese children are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease and to have chronic health conditions such as type-2 diabetes – this is true both as children and when they become adults. In addition, childhood obesity-related health care costs could range from $98 to $129 billion annually.

“The challenges of today’s childhood obesity epidemic are daunting, yet research and outreach investment offers unique opportunities for new strategies to meet these challenges,” said Tony G. Babb, Ph.D., director of the Cardiopulmonary Laboratory at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM). “Breathing and exercise limitations have become serious problems for these children but these challenges are under recognized and poorly studied.”

Dr. Babb and his team at the IEEM have made significant advances in understanding the mechanisms underlying shortness of breath in adults with obesity, and are working to identify better treatment strategies for obese men and women. They are now extending their research focus to investigating breathing and exercise limitations imposed by childhood obesity.

Childhood obesity creates the “perfect storm” condition for breathing discomfort and exercise intolerance, especially in the lungs and chest wall. Potential respiratory illnesses include alterations in pulmonary function, asthma-like airway reactivity at rest and during exercise, orthopnea (breathing discomfort when lying down), sleep disordered breathing (abnormal
control of breathing during sleep), sleep apnea, the list goes on and on. All children breathe at low lung volumes and have very compliant chest walls. Obesity adds chest wall fat weight that may compress the lung volume even further so that these children have almost no air left in their lungs when they expire, which is very uncomfortable. Especially when lying down at night, this chest compression can lead to substantial respiratory and ventilatory limitations.

About the IEEM

The Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM) was founded as a joint  program between Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Its mission is to promote basic and clinical research, education, and clinical practice in defining the limits to human functional capacity in health and disease, with the objective of improving the quality of life for human beings of all ages.

The IEEM includes 10 major laboratories tightly integrated and organized intellectually along the “oxygen cascade” — the path that oxygen must follow through the body from the external environment through the lungs, heart, skeletal muscles, and brain to perform cognitive function and physical activity.

The IEEM is among the only research centers in the world that fosters the fusion of basic science  and clinical medicine in a program designed specifically to study human physiology.

Dr. Babb and his team have proposed a series of innovative studies to understand these breathing limitations and help obese children exercise and lose weight, eliminating the health risks of obesity. The objective of these studies is to explore the effects of childhood obesity on respiratory function when resting, lying down and during exercise, and the mechanisms by which childhood obesity inflicts breathing limitations. They will study the respiratory function in obese boys and girls who are 10 or 11 years old, and compare them
with non-obese boys and girls. Breathing problems typically discourage obese children from participating in physical activity, which is the cornerstone to maintaining a good body weight or losing weight, creating a vicious cycle of decreased energy expenditure and increased body weight. Dr. Babb anticipates this will be a four year project, but they will garner significant pieces of information in each year of the project. He has already collected preliminary data on non-obese children to test the procedures and techniques.

But this research alone is not enough! Dr. Babb also sees the need to directly tackle the practical problems experienced by obese children today in our local community, including weight control management and physical inactivity. Combining practical everyday training and education with an ongoing research program focused on obesity-related breathing problems and exercise intolerance offers a dual approach addressing childhood obesity. While there are hospital based programs to evaluate health, and common diet issues in these children, there are no educationally based outreach facilities where children and parents can receive at no cost practical, hands-on, and individualized information, instruction, and assistance in implementing an exercise activity program and a diet management plan.

“No facility in Dallas offers this type of innovative interventional program to patients of any social-economic background without charge,” said Dr. Babb. “We believe a program like this has the potential to make an enormous impact on childhood obesity in our community and set an example of implementation for the rest of the nation.”

This novel program will be a joint collaboration among the renowned leaders in exercise, diet, research, and care at the IEEM, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, UT Southwestern Medical Center, and Children’s Medical Center Dallas. This creative and unique partnership will utilize educational programs, outreach facilities, research studies and
interventional strategies; working to educate and demonstrate to the child and family how to increase physical activity and manage eating choices. The program will provide the child and family with an onsite outreach facility where they can actually implement the exercise and diet skills prescribed in a supervised, well-equipped environment. This format will allow researchers the opportunity to quantify and investigate the prevalence and magnitude of breathing symptoms and exercise intolerance experienced by obese children and test the effectiveness of this novel weight loss and physical activity intervention on weight management, exercise tolerance and breathing discomfort in obese children.

“This program will deliver a much needed service to obese children in our community and serve to determine the best way to implement diet and physical activity programs for obese children and their families,” shared Dr. Babb. “It will also provide novel results that could offer physiological explanations for respiratory symptoms in obese children and potentially alter interventional approaches for preventing and treating childhood obesity.”

“The project will have broad and immediate clinical relevance; not only locally but nationally,” added Benjamin Levine, M.D., director of the IEEM. “We are well positioned to pursue this project because of the wide breadth of experience offered by this world renowned group of practitioners and scientists united for the very purpose of this intervention.”

For information on fundraising opportunities to support this important study and the IEEM, call Gwen Anderson at 214-345-8419.