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Training doctors to prescribe childhood exercise

Exercise is key to building healthy young bodies.
Exercise is key to building healthy young bodies, UC Irvine's Pediatric Exercise and Genomics Research Center has found.

UC Irvine medical school grad inspires $1.75-million gift to develop childhood exercise curriculum

Pediatricians routinely prescribe medications in the correct dosage, duration and frequency for a host of childhood medical conditions.

Surprisingly, few are trained to prescribe physical activity and exercise — an equally powerful medicine and an essential component of health, growth and development — with the same precision or understanding of outcomes. 

The UC Irvine School of Medicine's Pediatric Exercise and Genomics Research Center (PERC) is building a growing body of evidence demonstrating that healthy children, as well as children with chronic disease and disability, benefit from exercising in their youth and throughout their lives. To address this, PERC is launching an initiative to create a standard curriculum for training physicians and educators to prescribe targeted physical activities for children.

The curriculum development is supported by a $1.75-million gift from the Sunrider Corporation, which was inspired by the company's vice president of business development, Dr. Reuben K. Chen, a UC Irvine School of Medicine alumnus. Sunrider manufactures and distributes all-natural GMO-free herbal nutritional foods, beverages, supplements, fitness and weight loss products, and skincare products.

Reuben Chen, MD, vice president of Sunrider Corp., inspired a $1.75-million gift to underwriter childhood exercise training for doctors and educators.

Reuben Chen, MD, vice president of Sunrider Corp., believes that physical activity can benefit kids.

Chen, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, is an advocate for giving physicians and educators better information and tools to improve childhood health through exercise.

"When most people, including physicians, tell a child they need to exercise, they say, 'Go exercise and you’ll be okay,' " said Chen. "But most children don’t know what that means. It could mean anything from jumping on a trampoline to riding
a bike to maybe even just walking around outside. The prescription needs to be more detailed."

"One of the most important things about this program is that it’s for professionals, including our physicians, our teachers, coaches and PE teachers," Chen added. "The research PERC is doing is going to be vital to understanding
how to best keep our kids healthy and to use exercise as an actual medicine in
the longevity of our children, so they grow up healthy and strong."

The outcomes-oriented program will be developed under the direction of PERC’s founding director, Dr. Dan Cooper, associate dean for Clinical and Translational Science and former chair of the UC Irvine School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics, and Shlomit Radom-Aizik, PhD, PERC's executive director.

An advisory board of internationally renowned exercise medicine experts will provide consultation. Prescriptive physical activities will be based on scientifically proven exercise outcomes.

Once completed and tested, the curriculum will be made available to physicians through continuing medical education workshops and online. UC Irvine edical students and residents also will have the opportunity to experience the beneficial effects of exercise as mentors to children in research studies conducted to investigate the effects of exercise on children with conditions such as cancer, spina bifida and asthma.

PERC researchers study the body’s response to physical activity at the molecular level, with the goal of learning how physical activity can be prescribed to prevent or treat chronic disease in children.

"At PERC," Cooper said, "we’ve observed that exercise is not just good for you, it actually has a healing effect on the body and plays a critical role in growth and development. This information can help healthy children — and children with medical conditions or disabilities that might otherwise cause them to be sidelined during school activities — live healthier lives.

"Embedding essential concepts of prescriptive exercise in the training of physicians and school health providers has the potential to spark the biggest change in school exercise since physical education was introduced in public schools more than 180 years ago.”

Phase two of the multi-year effort will focus on exercise awareness training for K-12 coaches, teachers and administrators. The intent is to introduce a common set of exercise concepts for clinicians and educators that will promote a consistent approach to physical activity for school children. The project also will explore how schools might report fitness test data to treating physicians as a means to paint a more comprehensive picture of a child’s physical fitness.