July 26 2006
Could heavier toys, such as weighted teddy bears, be the next step in fighting the childhood obesity epidemic?
This is the question the world is asking after hearing about the research of John Ozmun, Indiana State University professor of physical education, and recently graduated master's student Lee Robbins.
In a small randomized study, Ozmun and Robbins found that children who interacted with weighted cardboard blocks experienced a significant increase in energy expenditure, heart rate, respiration and muscle activity.
After a news release was distributed in June on their research with weighted toys and the role they may play in children's fitness, Associated Press and Reuters News Service reporters called to interview Dr. Ozmun.
News outlets, from Hawaii to Washington, from London to Russia and China, were intrigued by the unique concept and picked up the wire stories. As a result, ISU's research has been featured in more than 250 newspapers, radio and TV stations, and Internet news sites around the world, including NPR Morning edition, CNN, and the Paul Harvey show.
Additionally, Ozmun and Robbins were interviewed by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. A story titled, "On the Scales: Weighted Building Blocks for Healthy Bodies," by New York Times reporter Eric Nagourney was published in the July 4, 2006, Science Times section. "Playtime, with Muscle," by Los Angeles Times writer Janet Cromley was published in the July 10, 2006, edition.
Ozmun said the high level of media interest gave him a unique opportunity to talk about the weighted toys concept.
"It allowed me to discuss the possibilities of what can be done with toys to help children be more physically active," Ozmun said.
The idea of taking a toy and modifying it is probably what captured the imagination of the media, Ozmun said.
"The health status of America's children is a big issue right now, with childhood obesity occurring even at a very young age, so that might have hit a chord with the media," he said.
HOW THE STUDY WAS DONE
In the study, five boys and five girls, ages 6 to 8, carried standard cardboard building blocks used for play from one side of the lab to the other.
During the first test, the blocks were unaltered. During the second test, the children moved blocks that had steel weights glued to the inside, for a total load of 3 pounds.
The children were fitted and monitored with a portable metabolic unit that measured their physiological characteristics as they carried the blocks.
This particular study would not have been possible without the metabolic unit - a $20,000 piece of equipment which incorporates a face mask and monitoring devices worn about the waist.
"Through funding from the Provost's Office," Ozmun said, "we were able to purchase the unit, and that opened the door for us to explore some different variables with the kids and collect some neat data. We've been able to use the unit in other research as well since then, and as a teaching device with our exercise science majors."
The University Research Committee also provided funding for research supplies, he said.
The other component that contributed to the project's success was Robbins.
"I was interested in working with the new piece of equipment, and having worked with kids before, I saw that it was a good fit for me to do this research study," said Robbins, who taught junior high physical education before earning his master's in exercise science.
Robbins recently accepted a position as a cardiopulmonary technician at MTS Health in Monroe, La., and is working with his research committee in the College of Health and Human Performance at ISU to prepare the research manuscript for submission to a scholarly journal.
He and Ozmun already have presented the findings at the Centers for Disease Control International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health in Atlanta, Ga., and the Annual Meeting of American College of Sports Medicine in Denver, Colo.
WHERE THE RESEARCH CAN LEAD
Further studies could include using these weighted toys with children who are overweight or obese, the researchers said.
"We have this major obesity epidemic in our country, and we are seeing risk factors in the preschool-age population," Ozmun said. "Although these weighted toys are not the only answer to this major health issue, they may serve as a small puzzle piece that could make a positive contribution."
While the idea of using cardboard blocks in the study came about because they were easily manipulated and fitted with weights, Ozmun said that, without further research, they aren't ready for the toy stores yet.
"You're not going to find toy building blocks with weights in them at Toys R Us this holiday," he said. "They worked great for research, but toys like this aren't ready to go out into the market until any safety issues have been ironed out first."
Ozmun is more optimistic about the chances of a brawny bear or portly puppy making it into the hands of kids.
WHERE THE IDEA CAME FROM
The concept of weighted toys might be novel to the rest of the world, but Ozmun has been playing with the idea for well over 10 years, in a much more cuddly form than blocks.
"Several years ago, I put together a very rough-looking stuffed monkey that I filled with some weighted material, with the thought that a weighted toy might be helpful in physical therapy with young kids," Ozmun said. "I gave it to one of the local pediatric units and asked them to see if it was something they could use.
"At that time it was pretty heavy - it was about a 5-pound monkey - and they said it was just too heavy to work with."
Using the recent research as a springboard, Ozmun is getting back to his original idea of weighted stuffed animals that can be used in pediatric physical therapy.
"Some of the characteristics of children with Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy are poor balance and strength deficits," Ozmun said. "I would like to see if these toys can be used in their therapeutic approaches to help these kids with muscular strength, balance and coordination."
Ozmun is working with a company to develop prototype stuffed animals in weights of 1, 2 and 3 pounds each, which he will then distribute to several pediatric therapy clinics who have agreed to try them out.
"Our goal is to find out what works in a real setting and what the limitations are," Ozmun said. "This will allow us to develop some further research questions. Initially, though, we want to find out if kids will play with these toys."
Professor John Ozmun and graduate student Lee Robbins monitor a young subject, with the help of a portable metabolic unit, as he carries weighted cardboard blocks during their research study. Photo by Drew Lurker/ISU.
Contact: John Ozmun, acting associate dean of College of Health and Human Performance, physical education professor, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3113, firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or email@example.com
John Ozmun, Indiana State University professor of physical education, and recently graduated master's student Lee Robbins conducted research with weighted toys and children's fitness which drew global attention.