Pennington Biomedical Research Center is conducting a study that encourages children to become more active. In the process, researchers hope to discover if one obstacle to exercise is hidden in plain sight: where they live.

The Pre-PLACE study, which began earlier this year and is seeking more volunteers, provides a Fitbit activity monitor for participating children that allows parents and Pennington to keep track of how many steps the youngsters take during the day. Parents receive suggestions to help their children increase their activity, and the children get positive feedback when they do well.

“It’s really encouraging parents and children to exercise together,” said Dr. Robert Newton, co-principal investigators of the Pre-PLACE research study along with Dr. Stephanie Broyles.

That, however, may be easier for some than others, which is what inspired the study.

Broyles’ area of research is how one’s environment influences health. Neighborhoods with parks, sidewalks and low traffic, she said, allow people to be more active than areas without such features. Newton designs projects to influence behavior change — in this case, children’s physical activity.

“But no one has really tested whether does the neighborhood you live in allow you to respond better to an intervention that is designed to help you become more physically active,” Broyles said. “This is a really novel area, and I think it has a lot of important aspects, especially regarding health disparities, because, typically, minorities and some of our poorer segments of the population live in these environments that are less supportive of physical activity and already are dealing with a lot of chronic conditions that would be improved by having higher levels of physical activity.

“So, if we’re not able to intervene to help, or if those populations are less able to benefit from interventions, then we really are limited in how we are able to improve these health disparities.”

Pennington has identified neighborhoods from the opposite ends of the activity-supportive spectrum and is selecting candidates from those areas. Children must be between 6 and 10 years old and physically inactive. The screening visit and two study visits take place at YMCAs for the families’ convenience. The study lasts 12 weeks, and those who complete it receive $50.

Amy Dawson’s said the Fitbit helps her daughter, Rowan, 7, stay motivated to be active and reach 10,000 steps per day, and the heart monitor helps her choose activities that get her heart rate up. Rowan has been in the study since June.

“Now that she’s home and has homework, it’s harder,” Dawson said. “When she was at camp, she would always exceed her goal. When she hadn’t, she would come home and say, ‘I need to walk around the corner two or three times so I can reach my steps,’ or she would go jump on her trampoline and make her heart rate go up for 15 minutes.”

Pre-PLACE study

WHAT: Candidates are wanted for Pennington Biomedical Research Center's study to determine if parents can use a mobile phone app to help their children be more physically active.

QUALIFICATIONS: Children should be 6 to 10 years old and physically inactive. Parents should own a smartphone, be willing to use text service for the study and be able to access the internet on their phone.

COMPENSATION: $50 for completing the study.

INFORMATION: (225) 763-2923 or email

Follow George Morris on Twitter, @GWMorris.