John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention

In 1999, Dr. Miriam Nelson founded the Center for Physical Fitness within the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, under the guidance and support of Dean Irwin Rosenberg. The Center, while initially small, had big goals – to improve the physical activity patterns and fitness of Americans.

During the next several years, Dr. Nelson conducted clinical research trials demonstrating that physical activity and good nutrition dramatically reduce the risk of a number of chronic diseases, including osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes. While these studies were groundbreaking, Dr. Nelson realized that meeting the goal of broad societal change meant taking this research out of the laboratory and into communities. Clinical research had demonstrated the beneficial effects of strength training on muscle strength, bone density, and chronic disease risk. The StrongWomen Program translated this research into a program in which midlife and older women get together in groups, in the communities where they live, and lift weights under the direction of a trained leader. This is now a national program in 40 states that served approximately 7,000 women in its first five years.

During the same time period, Dr. Christina Economos was developing a robust pediatric research agenda at the Friedman School with a shared goal of creating broad societal change. In 1999, the BONES Project took clinical research on the effects of calcium-rich foods and resistance exercise on building a good reserve of bone in childhood and brought it to after-school settings for young elementary school children through a study targeting over 1400 children. Dr. Economos' experience in conducting research with elementary school children through this project led to Shape Up Somerville, a landmark study that is one of the nation's first community-based environmental change interventions to prevent childhood obesity.

In 2003, through the leadership of Tufts University President Lawrence S. Bacow, John Hancock Financial Services, Inc. became a major sponsor of the Center, which is now called the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention. At that time, Drs. Nelson and Economos joined together as Director and Associate Director to collaboratively expand their research agendas and shared vision. The following year the New Balance Foundation made a major gift for support of the Children in Balance Initiative through direct research and training support and an endowment.

The support from John Hancock Financial Services, Inc. and the New Balance Foundation has helped provide core resources necessary to continue our community-based research efforts. We expanded on the StrongWomen Program by establishing a new curriculum, StrongWomen – Healthy Hearts that focuses on aerobic activity and a heart-healthy dietary pattern. Shape Up Somerville has also been expanded nationally through additional research studies.

Through the years, we have trained future leaders in order to build intellectual and community capacity. Since 2003, we have directly mentored seven doctoral students and provided mentorship for over 100 masters program students. Through both StrongWomen and Children in Balance, the Center has trained thousands of allied health professionals nationally in workshops and conferences.

We have grown in strength and influence and are currently in a position to affect health on a broader level through public policy. From 2007 to 2008, Dr. Nelson served as vice chair of the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, whose report was used to develop the inaugural Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans that were released in October 2008 by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. She currently serves on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Currently, Dr. Economos serves as a member of the Institute of Medicine's Committee on an Evidence Framework for Obesity Prevention Decision-Making. Also, Dr. Economos participated in the development of the youth section Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

In ten years, we grew to become a team of 23 faculty, staff, and graduate students, all involved in a wide range of activities designed to realize our vision of a future in which all children and adults live in communities that support their health.