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Diet/Exercise Program Greatly Improves Heart Health of Overweight Kids, New Study Finds

Diet and exercise can improve not only the cholesterol levels of children but also a wide range of other biomarkers linked with heart disease, found the results of a new study by UCLA researchers.

In the first ever study to show such benefits, researchers found improvements in insulin, triglycerides, blood sugar levels, and inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein and oxidative stress among youngsters, ages 9 to 15, participating in a two-week family program at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Florida.

The kids, almost all overweight, were at Pritikin with their parents to learn how to make exercise an enjoyable part of their daily lives and eat nutritiously (lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and moderate amounts of lean protein).

At the start of the program, Dr. James Barnard and colleagues at UCLA Department of Physiological Science took baseline blood tests of the children, measuring eight different biomarkers associated with abnormalities that lead to heart disease. Two weeks later, blood tests were taken again. The scientists observed dramatic decreases in all biomarkers.

Total cholesterol fell on average 21 percent, LDL "bad" cholesterol decreased 25 percent, triglycerides (blood fats) plummeted 39 percent, and insulin levels fell 30 percent. Key markers of inflammation in the arteries, including C-reactive protein, oxidative stress, serum adhesion molecules, and gelantinase activity, fell 41 percent, 90 percent, 53 percent, and 49 percent, respectively. Inflammation can lead to the formation of plaque, hidden inside artery walls, which can rupture without warning, causing a heart attack.

"What struck me most about this study were the relatively high levels of biomarkers in people who were so young," commented Dr. Barnard. "A lot of parents think, 'Yes, my kids are fat, but their arteries must still be nice and clean, so they're a long way from serious health problems.' Well, our research shows that's just not the case. What you see on the outside very much mirrors what's going on inside."

Dr. Barnard and his team were prompted to conduct the study because of previous research - autopsy studies - showing that plaque build-up in the arteries, or atherosclerosis, begins as early as the first decade in life.

The good news, Barnard said, is that lifestyle changes can induce beneficial results, and in a very short period of time, just two weeks. What's more, the children didn't need to lose a lot of weight before reaping remarkable rewards for their hearts.

"The biomarkers were dramatically reduced with just minimal weight loss," he notes.

"It's a hopeful message for both kids and adults," said Barnard. "Keep exercising and eating nutritiously. Even if weight loss happens slowly, getting healthy happens very quickly."

The results were presented at the American Heart Association's national conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention.

The Pritikin Family Program, held every summer since 2002 at the Pritikin Longevity Center, is lead by Pritikin's physicians, dietitians, and exercise physiologists. "Our goal is teaching families how fun and rewarding healthy living can be," said registered dietitian Jeffrey Novick.

Activities include kid-friendly cooking workshops like "Awesome Fruit Smoothies," lively noncompetitive exercise classes such as "Cardio Blast" workouts, field trips to mall food courts to learn how to make good choices, tennis lessons, and afternoons playing at the beach.

For more information on the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa, visit For more information on the UCLA Department of Physiological Science, visit Thursday, June 16, 2005

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