Current Project Descriptions
Fluctuations in Health Behaviors and Pain Across the Adolescent Transition
Adolescence is a time of increased health-compromising behaviors. Puberty is a key transition of adolescence which offers a “window of opportunity” for health promotion. For girls, the onset of menstruation (i.e., menarche) is a defining pubertal event associated with numerous changes including increased risk for pain conditions and weight gain. There is, however, a critical gap in the science as to whether changes in sleep and physical activity (PA) across puberty relate to dysmenorrhea as well as widespread pain in addition to weight gain. This study of pain, sleep and PA across menarche will provide key insights into our understanding of factors that are critical for establishing lifelong health. Defining how PA and sleep change across adolescence has transdiagnostic implications for understanding patterns of individual risk in relation to health outcomes for youth more broadly. In addition, understanding factors that may help to identify those who go on to develop chronic pain is important for prevention and intervention work. This is a collaboration built off the NIH-funded EMPATHY project at Northshore University Health systems. We are also working closely with colleagues at the University of Michigan to develop several papers using ABCD data to examine similar questions.
Life Interrupted: Family Routines and Youth Well-Being during the COVID-19 Pandemic
The Activity Matters Lab is investigating how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced daily routines and structure in families. In May of 2020, we launched a study utilizing Amazon Mechanical Turk to understand the impact of this unprecedented event on family’s behavioral routines and how those routines influence child and family well-being. Parents answered a series of questions related to demographic information, household routines, COVID-19 related stressors as well as family functioning and children’s physical and psychological well-being. In May of 2021, we completed a second study to follow up with these same families. Data from the first round of the study was recently published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.
Structure & Well-Being
We have several projects underway to consider the value of structure on health and well-being. Most notably, this work focuses on summertime weight gain. Despite traditional notions of the summer months as a highly active time for youth, children’s weight gain appears to accelerate over the summer. Data on this phenomenon, though, are limited to only a handful of studies of the early elementary years. There is a need for more research addressing this “summertime slide” among youth of varying ages and locations (e.g., urban versus rural settings) as well as a careful examination of contributing factors to summertime weight gain. We have recently published a meta-analysis of weight gain during school year for those not receiving school-based interventions, and are currently working with colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine to address questions regarding the value of structure on health and well-being using ECLS-K data. Other projects examining the value of structure have focused on the transition to college as well as the family home environment. As part of the FOOD CUES study, we utilized daily diary methods to capture information regarding the timing of various health behaviors (i.e. sleeping, eating, and physical activity). Consistent timing of health behaviors from day to day may assist the body in productive energy metabolism by entraining health behaviors (e.g., eating) to internal mechanisms (e.g., metabolic functioning) often associated with weight related outcomes. In addition, we have several collaborations to address contextual influences on well-being including with colleagues at Northwestern University to examine out-of-school time use on health in a study of low-income African American youth (ages 14-21), and another study with a colleague at Loyola University School of Public to understand the influence of racism on dietary intake patterns among college students. We also continue to be interested in studying nature/green spaces as a context in which children and families flourish (see our work with Space to Grow).
Although the causes of obesity are multifaceted, regular consumption of energy dense, nutrient poor food likely contributes to the problem. As such, the widespread marketing of such food is a growing concern. Recent estimates suggest that the food industry spends close to $2 billion each year on marketing to young people alone, mostly for foods that are high in fat, sugar, and sodium. Although research suggests that exposure to unhealthy food marketing is associated with greater consumption of unhealthy foods, one popular argument is that individuals should resist such advertising by exercising more personal responsibility over what they eat. However, what if resisting unhealthy food advertising actually impacts an individual’s ability to self-regulate? The FOOD CUES study sought to answer this question. In collaboration with Dr. Becky Silton’s WELL lab, the FOOD CUES study investigated the impact that unhealthy food commercials had on self-regulation in a young adult population via a lab-based study. FOOD CUES was a multi-method study using both EEG and neuropsychological measures to measure self-regulation. We were also interested in how individual differences (e.g., engaging in disordered eating) are associated with response to commercials. We are currently cleaning and analyzing data collected from this study, which completed data collection in 2019.
Space to Grow (STG)
We teamed up with the Healthy Schools Campaign to evaluate their Space to Grow initiative. Space to Grow (STG) transforms schoolyards of selected Chicago Public Schools (CPS) into vibrant green spaces that meet the unique needs and visions of their respective schools and communities. Along with colleagues at the University of California Nutrition Policy Institute, we evaluated five STG schoolyard transformations at CPS schools around Chicago. This project supported the scaling up of the STG initiative and informed the broader public health, education, public policy and green infrastructure communities about the benefits of investing in schools and the built environment. The specific aims of the STG evaluation project were to assess the impact of the schoolyard redesign on 1) utilization and characteristics of the schoolyard, 2) changes in students’ health, well-being, and academic outcomes, 3) changes in the school environment, and 4) changes in school-community engagement and cohesion. To carry out these aims, we evaluated the schoolyard planning and design process, as well as collected pre- and post-transformation data using observational Behavioral Mapping techniques, survey data from parents, teachers, school administrators and community members, and school-level data on attendance, attrition, health and wellness variables, and disciplinary action. We are currently processing these data and writing publications and a policy brief.
Girls in the Game (GIG)
We are greatly interested in applying our work to programming and policy, and we are able to do so through our role as research coordinators for Girls in the Game, a Chicago-based non-profit organization. Girls in the Game aims to improve the health and wellbeing of girls through sports and fitness, health education, and leadership development. For the past decade, we have assisted GIG in preparing two grant applications and have been the principal investigator of effectiveness studies of the after-school program. We will continue to collect data on the effects of GIG after-school programming on youth and adolescents.
We have joined forces with Dr. Catherine Santiago’s CASA (Children Adapting to Stress and Adversity) Lab on their project, “Protective processes among immigrant families: The impact of family coping on Mexican-origin children.” This project will examine the role of family coping in protecting children against immigration stress by promoting positive mental health and the development of adaptive child coping among Mexican-origin families. In particular, our lab is interested in factors related to obesity among these families, including sleep and stress, given the disproportionate rate of obesity among Mexican immigrants to the United States and given that Mexico’s obesity rate recently surpassed that of the United States. See the CASA Lab website for more information: http://casalabluc.weebly.com/
Study of Teen Adjustment in Affluent Communities (STAAC)
Only in the last ten years have researchers begun to acknowledge that adolescents from affluent families are vulnerable to a unique set of adjustment problems. STAAC aimed to investigate levels of anxiety, depression, substance use, and satisfaction with life in affluent youth. Specifically, we examined the impact of perfectionism, ideas about success, parental pressure, school competition, and organized activity involvement on these adjustment outcomes. As proposed in the over-scheduling hypothesis, affluent youth may often be over-involved to such a degree that they suffer from stress-related problems. Participants were recruited from affluent suburbs of Boston, New York, and Chicago. Results from this work have been presented at several international conferences. To date, several manuscripts have been published from these data (see Publications and Presentations page). Most notably, this work has led to the development of a new measure, the 10-item Effortless Perfectionism Scale. Effortless perfection (EP) is a phenomenon referenced in popular culture, but had yet to be validated empirically. In addition to conceptualizing and discussing the theoretical underpinnings of EP, we established the psychometric properties of this scale in a paper in Psychological Assessment.
Another interdisciplinary project that Activity Matters lab has worked on focused on is developing and evaluating nutritionally-designed diningware plates (i.e., Nutri-plate) on adolescents’ food choices. This project was supported by a seed grant from the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC). Results from this pilot study were published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior in 2010 and the Nutri-plate is currently available for purchase as www.Nutri-plate.com.
Healthy Adjustment in Teens Study (HATS)
While there is a wealth of research on adjustment difficulties of high functioning youth with autism spectrum disorders, less is known about the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that influence adjustment. In particular, while the positive impact of organized activity involvement has been well documented in typically developing youth, there is little known about whether these benefits also apply to high functioning youth on the autism spectrum. The aims of HATS included gaining a better understanding of these relations and the influence of social impairment, friendship quality, and executive functions on depressive symptoms and loneliness in this population. Finally, as part of this project, we evaluated the potential benefit of having and caring for pets on adjustment for this population. HATS data includes parent and self-report for more than 150 families throughout the United States. Data from this project has been presented at several conferences, including Society for Research on Adolescence in 2012 and the Society for Research in Child Development in 2013.