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Hip-hop health, a 'party with a purpose'

By Stephanie Smith CNN | 9/29/2013, 12:35 p.m.
The classroom walls tremble as a room full of 8-year-olds bob heads, shrug shoulders and wriggle around in sync with the thud of the bass. Photo courtesy of Hip Hop Public Health.

The crew then dug into one the of the most pressing health problems facing minority communities: obesity.

The challenges are formidable.

Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicate that obesity rates are falling overall, but the rates among Hispanic and African-American children are still troublingly high. Those children also tend to live in areas saturated with fast food chains, with little access to healthy foods.

"Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S.," or Healthy Eating and Living in Schools, the program Williams and his rapper colleagues developed, tries to chip away at those issues.

"Everyone remembers their favorite song growing up," said Easy A.D., director of programming for Hip Hop Public Health. "Even if you're 5, 6, 7 years old, you always remember the words, the melody, how it made you feel when you listened to it.

"That's what we're doing with our program," he added. "We take health messages and attach them to good feelings, good memories, and that makes (children) incorporate those messages into their lives."

In one video titled "Watch Your Calories," a cartoon character, voiced by rapper Artie Green, admonishes two children who are about to eat fatty fast food meals to "stop right there for a second. Before you super-size that No. 5 now, check it. See, there's a whole lot of stuff in that meal you don't need."

A menu appears, showing the sugars, carbohydrates and fats contained in their meals. An embedded message in the video is menu board literacy, providing children whose main option may be fast food with the information they need to make healthier choices.

Williams admits that teaching children the importance of cooking meals at home and purchasing healthy groceries would also be effective, but he says that teaching "caloric literacy" can also provide a substantive impact.

For example, he says, cutting 100 calories a day using better menu board literacy could translate to a few thousand calories over a couple of weeks.

"These small changes are meaningful, and on a population level, these small changes could have very significant impact," he said.

Another video developed for the obesity program teaches children how to achieve their anaerobic threshold, a measure of optimal performance while exercising.

The video, titled "Hip Hop FEET," uses a set of musical beats as a measuring stick for how effectively a child is exercising.

If they breathe before the beats count is up, they are over-exerting themselves. If they don't breathe enough, that means they're not trying hard enough. And if they breathe once at the conclusion of the beats, they've hit their anaerobic threshold.

It is a complex concept simplified for young people.

"It's using hip-hop in a positive way, to have real impact," Doug E. Fresh said. "We use beats that make you really wanna move. You're not just gonna sit there; you wanna get up and do something."

As it turns out, the programs for healthier eating and exercise are doing much more than simply making children move.

Peer-reviewed studies conducted by Williams and colleagues found that immediately after caloric literacy interventions, children changed their food purchases.