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Online comic strip hopes to improve girls' health

Researchers study the effects of a comic strip-style computer program on the health of 400 young volunteers and their parents.

The Food, Fun and Fitness Internet Program for Girls is being tested on 400 girls and their parents. Stephen Ausmus

In a preliminary study a few years back, researchers found that an educational, online comic strip geared toward 8- to 10-year-old black girls helped them eat better and exercise more. But there were only 80 girls, and they all self-reported, and it's unclear whether the fact that they were paid skewed the results.

Now, the program's creators are set to really put the comic strips to the test when they launch a larger study, with 400 volunteers and their parents, to test the Web-based program. Called the "Food, Fun, and Fitness Internet Program for Girls," the comic strips were created by researchers at the ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, who plan to write another one specifically for Hispanic girls.

The first study, published in the journals Health Education Research in 2007 and Preventive Medicine in 2008, followed girls over an eight-week period as they accessed the online comic strips at home and watched an unfolding drama of six comic strip girls very much like themselves.

Every day the characters had to try to eat at least five servings of fruits and veggies, drink at least five glasses of water, and spend more time being physically active. After watching the online drama, the study participants set their own diet and physical fitness goals and filed updates weekly.

Not only did these girls log on regularly (again, remember that some were being paid $5 at random for an incentive), their increase in fruit and veggie consumption as well as physical activity was "statistically significant," according to the researchers. The biggest trick, they say, is figuring out why across all participants the log-on rate dropped significantly over weeks four and five of the study.