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IU Health & Wellness: Back-to-school issue

Research and Insights from Indiana University

This back-to-school themed issue discusses the following topics:

Printing letters and brain development in preschoolers
Parents' guide to high-tech cell phones
Hairstyles deterring exercise?
Talking to children about sex
Weight gain during the college years
Resources for families of children with disabilities

Printing and brain development. Recent neuroimaging research from Indiana University has revealed that brain activation in preschool children changes depending on how they learn. "We are interested in how children's neural activity changes as they learn to recognize letters and as they learn to read," said Karin Harman James, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington. "We have recently shown that when children look at letters, the activity in parts of their brains becomes more like activity seen in literate adult brains, but only after they have had practice printing letters." One group of preschool children practiced identifying letters using visual practice while another group practiced printing letters. Only the group that practiced printing letters showed changes in brain activity while viewing letters as a result of their experience. "Coupled with other work from our lab, we interpret this as the motor system augmenting visual processing," James said. "In the case of learning letters, printing helps children recognize letters." These studies are part of a larger initiative in the Cognition & Action Neuroimaging Laboratory to study how the brains of preschool children change as they learn to read. Neuroimaging at IU uses functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to measure brain activation while people are performing tasks. This method uses the same technology as MRI, which gives pictures of internal tissue, but instead of taking a measure at one time, fMRI measures tissue changes over time. It is harmless and involves no risks, so is safely used on children.

James can be reached at 812-856-0659 and For more information about the lab, visit Top

Dialing-up trouble? As parents get their kids geared up for the coming school year, many will include a first or new cell phone on their child's school supply list. Many parents like the convenience and perceived security of their child having a cell phone (so they can easily reach the child and so the child can get help in the event of an emergency). But according to Greg Travis, assistant director of the Pervasive Technology Labs' Advanced Network Management Lab at Indiana University, with today's technology-rich phones, there are several things parents should consider before making that trip to the local cellular store. "A very large number of phones are now capable of providing the same kinds of services as desktop and laptop computers," said Travis. "This means parents should be concerned about all the same issues they worry about on their other computers -- exposure to inappropriate Internet content, the potential for kids to share personal, incriminating, or embarrassing personal information and photos, and the potential for trouble should the phone be lost or stolen." Travis also warns that parents can get a bad case of sticker shock when opening that first cell phone bill. "These services aren't free. Charges can add up quickly, especially if kids make heavy use of the text messaging and Internet features."

Travis offers these tips to parents buying cell phones for their children:

  • World at their fingertips. Parents who are uncomfortable with allowing their children and teens full access to online content should choose either a phone plan that does not include Internet access or a phone model that does not include an Internet browser.
  • Teach good sharing. Make sure your kids understand how to exercise good judgment when deciding what to share with their cell phone -- particularly pictures taken from its camera. The Internet doesn't forget; pictures or content kids once thought to be harmless or funny can quickly become incriminating or embarrassing. Kids shouldn't take or share any pictures that they wouldn't want to be seen by you, their teachers or the world.
  • Privacy at risk. Today's high-tech cell phones store a lot of very personal data, including e-mail and text messages that your kids may not want others to read. Unsecured e-mail and text accounts can also be used by others posing as the phone's owner. Kids should not lend their phones to friends. And make sure the phone you choose includes a self-locking feature that requires a Personal Identification Number (PIN). Know how to contact your cell provider promptly if the phone is lost. Your company may be able to erase and disable the phone, no matter where it is.
  • Know the plan. Don't get caught off guard by budget-busting cell phone bills. Make sure you and your child understand what's included in the cellular plan -- such as number of text messages, phone minutes and amount of included Internet access. Watch your monthly bills closely. If you are getting lots of charges outside the plan, you may want to upgrade your plan -- or downgrade the phone.

To speak with Travis, contact Daphne Siefert-Herron at 812-856-1242 and Top


Antonio Williams

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Forsaking health for style. African American women often cite time and such socioeconomic issues as lack of support or disposable income as obstacles to adopting an active lifestyle or exercising regularly. Indiana University fitness expert Antonio Williams said, however, that one of the top reasons given by black women of all income levels involves style and hair care. He said black women, particularly college-age women and women with corporate jobs, often sacrifice their health for stylish and often expensive hairdos. Fears of "sweating out" the hairstyle make lunchtime workouts unlikely and keep the women from the gym or other physical activities. Williams, a fitness consultant and lecturer in IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, specializes in fitness marketing and perception. "For years I've heard, 'I can't schedule a personal training session now, I just got my hair done,'" he said. "These women are risking their health for style."

Williams, who gives presentations about this topic, said it is possible to be active without perspiring heavily. He offers the following tips to help women maintain their health and style:

  • Walk, don't run. Williams said the amount of time depends on the goals. To be healthy, walking for 30 minutes, three times a week, is sufficient. To lose weight, walk 60-90 minutes, five times a week.
  • Break it up. He suggests several daily bouts of 10-minute walks or light jogging because it conveys the same health benefits with less sweating.
  • Consult your beautician. Williams encourages women to tell their beauticians that they would like a hairstyle that suits corporate America as well as a healthful lifestyle. Beauticians have told Williams that hair extensions and wearing Afrocentric headwraps during workouts can help preserve styles.

Williams notes that studies from IU and elsewhere often find that African American women tend to have more favorable body image compared to other women, despite fitness levels. "We can't continue to sacrifice health for hair," he said.

Williams can be reached at 812-855-3061 and Top

Talking about sex with your kids. "Parents are afraid about what they might find out," said Dennis Fortenberry, M.D., professor of adolescent medicine at the IU School of Medicine. "They think they might hear more than they want to." It's possible they will. Studies show, Fortenberry said, that parents often underestimate the amount of sexual activity their teen is having. They also underestimate how important parental values are to their teenagers. "Kids grow up and absorb the values and expectations of their parents, even if it is not apparent," he said. This makes conversations about sex all the more important -- if teens do not know what is expected of them, how can they make safe and informed decisions? "Part of the benefit of talking to your kids about sex is that, when they leave your sight and are no longer under your control, the choices they make about sex will be something they've arrived at purposely. It's a safer choice," he said.

Fortenberry offers the following sex-talk tips for parents:

  • Be direct. According to Fortenberry, many parents perceive they have spoken to their teens about sex when, in fact, teens do not think they have. "It's hard for parents to use the words needed," Fortenberry says. "They have to be direct."
  • Be explicit about values and expectations. Let your children and teens know what you expect of them. "Despite lots of myths to the contrary, parental values and expectations remain important to most young people," said Fortenberry.
  • Forget "the talk." Instead, he suggests making sex an extension of a larger and longer conversation -- not a one-shot deal. "If it's down to the talk, then it's probably too late. Parents often begin this conversation early anyway, when they ask their kids if they have a girlfriend or boyfriend." Fortenberry also suggests taking advantage of life events such as school dances as opportunities to continue the conversation.
  • Be comprehensive. Sexuality is complex for adults and teens alike. Simplistic approaches such as "just say no" often fail to equip teens with the knowledge and skills needed to make safe and informed decisions. Fortenberry suggests including information about biology and anatomy as well as information about the development of relationships, feelings and how those feelings can be part of being interested in sex with a person.

These tips all address ways that parents can talk to their kids about sex, but what if the conversation is reversed? If teens approach parents with questions or concerns about sex, Fortenberry suggests listening as a top priority. "I think the best response is to say 'tell me more, tell me what you've been thinking about sex, tell me how it's related to the person you are having sex with, tell me what you are afraid of and what intrigues you.' Then, ask how you can help," says Fortenberry.

Fortenberry can be reached at 317-274-8812 and Top

Jeanne Johnson

Jeanne Johnston

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Weight gain during college. During the college years, it's common for students' activity levels to decrease as their waistlines increase. What's the harm of a few pounds? Habits students develop now -- and the pounds they put on -- could last a lifetime. "It's always a lot easier to prevent something than it is to address it after the problem has occurred and you see the negative health effects resulting from your behaviors," said Jeanne Johnston, assistant professor at Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. Johnston studies physical activity, health and quality of life issues facing various age groups. One study involving college freshmen found that almost half of the students already had at least two risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol. Alice Lindeman, associate professor in the School of HPER, said it can be exciting for students to try new foods and eat whenever they want. "What you eat today stays on your body and adds to what you eat tomorrow," Lindeman said. "You have to eat for today and plan for tomorrow." Johnston said little research has been done on how to help this age group become healthier. "It's particularly pertinent because this is the time when they're establishing their lifelong behaviors," Johnston said. "It's the right time -- they're out there on their own. It's a good time to talk with them about why this is important."

Alice Lindeman

Alice Lindeman

Johnston said these strategies could help students get their school years off to a healthy start:

  • Be physically active throughout the day. Students could walk or ride a bike to class as opposed to taking a bus or car, walk or ride bikes to local places like stores, making an effort to accumulate 10,000 steps a day.
  • Plan exercise. Johnston encourages students to make exercise part of their daily schedules. She says time has been cited as a major barrier to exercise. How much exercise is enough? She said 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three days a week will suffice. Students also could consider joining intramural or club sports.
  • Manage stress. Stress can have a negative impact on health and well-being. It decreases immune function and contributes to weight gain, particularly around the mid-section. Physical activity has been shown to improve mood and have a positive impact on stress.
  • Avoid late night snacks. When eating too late at night, you tend to select foods that are convenient (pizza, popcorn, chips) or bring comfort (cookies, pop) but are not mini meals that have variety and balance, Lindeman said. After too many late night meals or snacks, you start missing breakfast and become even hungrier later in the day.
  • Remember lessons learned at home. Students can make many more choices about when and what they eat. Lindeman encourages them to stick to the healthy routines established at home.
  • Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep has been shown to have a negative impact on health, contributing to weight gain, increased late-night snacking and a negative impact on focus and performance.

Johnston can be reached at 812-855-5073 and Lindeman can be reached at 812-855-6437 and Top

Child with disability

Family-to-Family Connections. The Indiana Institute's Early Childhood Center is partnering with About Special Kids (ASK) to provide a series of Family-to-Family programs and Web-based services designed to connect families of children with disabilities to community information and resources. This Family-to-Family project is funded by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, a Division of Disability and Rehabilitative Services, First Steps Early Intervention System.

  • Indiana's Family-to-Family Parent Listserv is for all families of children with disabilities. Parents and family members may use this Listserv to exchange information and resources to build the knowledge-base and leadership skills of other Indiana families. Common topics include transition, IEPs, types of therapies, diets, coping and general family-to-family support and encouragement. Participants may subscribe by visiting
  • The Family Involvement Fund (FIF) provides financial support for family members of children with disabilities to help increase knowledge and understanding of their child's disability and/or the systems that provide services. Support may include attending conferences and workshops, task force meetings, online trainings, teleconferences, and more. FIF also provides financial support for the purchase of disability-related print and electronic media. Separate funding within FIF is available for parents who participate as members on Local Planning and Coordinating Councils-LPCC, its committees and sponsored activities, Transition Local Learning Opportunities, or other requested committee participation.
  • Parent Liaisons are parents of children with special needs that reside within the First Step Clusters they serve. Parent Liaisons have access to extensive amounts of resource materials to share in the areas of health insurance, special education law, community resources, trainings, and support organizations. Additionally, Parent Liaisons will connect individuals with Parent Mentors who are volunteers providing peer support. Peer support matches parent(s) with other parent(s) who have encountered the same obstacles and experienced similar milestones.

The Family-to-Family Web site offers more information on the above programs, forms and fact sheets, and links to other disability sites. Visit for more information or contact Cathy Beard, Family Support Specialist, Early Childhood Center at 812-855-6508 or Top

For additional assistance with these tips, contact Tracy James, 812-855-0084 or; Amanda Daugherty, 812-856-3136 or; or Steve Hinnefeld, 812-856-3488 or