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Kids Take Healthy Habits to Heart


Meet Cool-E the Robot.

Named after Dr. Denton Cooley — the first surgeon to implant a total artificial heart into a human being — Cool-E helps teach kids the lifestyle habits they need to build a healthy heart. The blue robot is the mascot of Project Heart, an award-winning interactive website run by the Texas Heart Institute that teaches kids how to stay healthy through proper nutrition and plenty of exercise.

“We know that if kids learn at an early age that protecting their heart is very important, they’ll act,” says Melanie Lazarus, an instructional designer and developer who works on Project Heart. “Our goal is to make a heart-healthy lifestyle just become part of who they are.”

Project Heart aligns with the Institute’s mission to reduce the “devastating toll of cardiovascular disease,” says Lazarus, a leader. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the world and is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing about 386,000 Americans a year, so helping young people build healthy habits early on is key to reducing those high rates.

The project originally launched in 2005 as a curriculum-based website to provide resources to educators to use in classroom lessons about the cardiovascular system. Along with its Spanish-language companion website Project Corazon, the project reached about 500,000 people, Lazarus says. Half of those were from countries in Central and South America, which the Institute was particularly proud of, she adds.

A few years after the project’s launch, the Institute wanted to expand it from being a teacher-directed initiative to something kids could independently participate in. So when Project Heart relaunched in 2011, it included revamped resources for teachers and an entire section of the website for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Cool-E the Robot plays a big role on the website. He leads children through a number of interactive games that show them how to build healthy habits. The game “Best Served Cold,” for example, is reminiscent of early Super Mario Brothers games (with Cool-E in the hero role) as kids collect foods from the five food groups and stomp on those that contain too much sugar, fat or salt. The card-based game “Fitness Flapjack” is like blackjack. Kids try to  reach 21 using cards that showcase how many calories are burned in a minute doing certain activities, such as rock climbing (nine calories) and hacky sack (three calories).

The website also features interactive animations that display the anatomy of the heart, sound files to teach kids how to listen to their hearts and try-it-yourself experiments that kids can do off-line to learn more about their hearts.

Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano joins Cool-E as a celebrity spokesman on the website. He challenges kids ages 5 to 13 to change their health habits over seven days, including by running or walking for 20 minutes a day, drinking water instead of sugary drinks, eating fruit for dessert, eating an extra vegetable or making a healthy breakfast.  “That has proven to be very, very popular section of our website,” Lazarus says.

Since its re-launch, Project Heart has picked up a slew of awards, including “Best in Class” honors from the Interactive Media Awards, an eHealthcare Leadership Gold Award and first place in the Web-based resource category at the Web Health Awards. More importantly, Project Heart has reached an additional 145,000 people and is being used in schools in the Houston Independent School District and Spring Valley Independent School District in Texas.

Seventy-five percent of the website’s visitors are checking out the kid-focused content. That’s important, Lazarus says, because it shows that young people are educating themselves about their health. Kids can make a difference, she says.

“There really are things that kids can do to help themselves,” Lazarus says. “We truly believe that kids can make a huge difference.”

Project Heart and Project Corazon can be accessed for free online.

Click here to connect with Melanie Lazarus.