UCI researchers to study health effects of exercise in children

$7.2 million effort to identify how exercise can be best used to prevent asthma, obesity

Irvine, Calif., May 1, 2006 -- Researchers with the UC Irvine Center for the Study of Health Effects of Exercise in Children have received a $7.2 million, five-year National Institutes of Health grant to study the impact of physical activity on childhood health.

The information gained will be used to find how exercise can be best used to prevent asthma and childhood obesity, and to enhance the process of growth and development in children with chronic disease and disability.

"With the alarming increase in obesity and asthma in children -- both conditions uniquely tied to levels of exercise and physical activity -- never before has the need for such research been so great," said Dr. Dan Cooper, center director and professor of pediatrics, who will lead the project, which encompasses three thematically linked research studies investigating the biological processes that associate exercise with disease in children.

Physical activity is a critical moderator of growth and development in children and adolescents. Cooper said exercise also has substantial therapeutic benefits for children who suffer from a variety of chronic diseases and disabilities.

"A very exciting part of the research is based on recent discoveries that exercise can influence the immune system in children," Cooper said. "It is the immune system that seems to be abnormal in childhood diseases like asthma and arthritis. Also, abnormal immune function may contribute to increases in the risk for heart disease later in life."

While the idea that exercise is good for children makes sense, very little is known about how much and what kind of exercise is necessary and healthy. Even though children are the most active age group, pediatricians and other health care professionals receive little or no formal training in assessing their patients' physical activity levels or how to motivate parents to alter their children's physical activity patterns. The problem is even worse in children with chronic diseases and disabilities for whom a "normal" amount of exercise can cause an unhealthy stress or immune response.

The three studies are targeted to begin to fill these gaps in our understanding of the optimal role of exercise in growing children. One study will examine the molecular mechanisms that link inflammatory and growth-factor responses to exercise, and another will look into how exercise stimulates the production of these responses in children with asthma. A third will explore the impact of exercise-associated oxidative stress in obese children.

All three will help determine how these exercise-activated molecular mechanisms are altered by gender, physical-maturity levels and the common pediatric conditions of asthma and obesity. These mechanisms are of particular importance during critical periods of growth and development, when habitual physical activity may affect health, not only in the short term but also for life.

"With what we learn from these studies, we plan to design and test exercise programs that play a positive role with children's health," Cooper said, "both to help lower obesity rates and to allow children with chronic diseases like cystic fibrosis, asthma and neuromuscular diseases to participate in physical activity that will be beneficial."

Along with Cooper, study principal investigators are Greg Adams and Dr. Pietro Galassetti with the Pediatric Exercise Research Center.

About the project

The "Mechanism of Health Effects of Exercise in Children" project will be supported by an administrative core that will promote scientific interaction among the research studies, facilitate subject recruitment and regulatory compliance, and provide statistical expertise. In addition, a pediatric growth, stress and inflammatory mediator core laboratory will ensure optimal and efficient use of analytic resources. The laboratory will be directed by Frank Zaldivar, a pediatric specialist at UCI Medical Center.

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