Children found to gain weight during summer
Study advocates involvement by parents, schools
INDIANAPOLIS -- The nation's schools -- under fire for unhealthy school lunches, well-stocked vending machines, and physical education cuts -- may actually do a better job than parents in keeping children fit and trim.
A study found that 5- and 6-year-olds gained more weight over the summer than during the school year, casting doubt on the assumption that children are more active during the summer .
The findings don't reveal what's behind the out-of-school weight gain, but the researchers speculate it's because the summer months lack the structure of the school year with all its activities and daily comings and goings.
Doug Downey, an Ohio State University sociologist who coauthored the study, said that for many youngsters, the lazy days of summer may offer plenty of free time to eat snacks and lounge about watching television or playing video games.
He said the study seems to point to the need for parents to be more involved, as well as raise the idea of a longer school year and more after-school programs to keep children active.
And schools should continue their efforts to promote good health, he said.
"Trying to improve the quality of school lunches, getting the soda machines out of schools -- those are still good approaches. But clearly the source of children's obesity problems lies outside of the school," Downey said.
For the study, Indiana University and Ohio State researchers studied the growth rates of the body-mass indexes of 5,380 kindergartners and first-graders. The data came from a National Center for Education Statistics survey that ran from fall 1998 to spring 2000 in 310 schools across the country.
The sociologists found that the youngsters' BMIs increased on average more than twice as much during summer compared with the school year. That increase was even greater among black and Hispanic students and children who were overweight at the start of kindergarten.
Once children were back in school, however, the monthly growth rate of their BMIs fell, and the growth rate gap between the overall population and the minority and overweight groups shrank, the researchers found.
The study will appear in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Betsy A. Keller, a professor of exercise and sport sciences at Ithaca College in New York, said the pattern seen in the study's snapshot of the children's kindergarten year, summer break, and first grade is "irregular" and does not mesh with children's normal growth in height and weight.
Keller said it clearly points to a summer gain in fat mass, although she said data from later school years are needed to see whether that trend continues.
Overall, she said the findings point to the need for parents to become actively involved in encouraging their children to develop healthy habits even as the push continues for schools to focus more on those same goals.
"The big question in my mind is what are the parents doing with these children during the summer? Unless they're paying attention to their child's level of activity and diet, with each passing summer they're just adding to the risk of them becoming overweight."
"These are 5- and 6-year-olds, after all. So they're not going to the grocery store -- it's their parents who are making these choices."
The study's coauthor, Brian Powell, a professor of sociology at Indiana University, said earlier studies have indicated that 5- and 6-year-olds with above-average BMI scores and BMI gains are at increased risk for adult obesity.
Some 17 percent of US youngsters already are obese, and millions more are overweight. Obese adults are at heightened risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other disorders.
In recent years, criticism has been directed at schools for playing a role, leading nearly 20 states to enact some form of school nutrition legislation or to emphasize exercise goals.
"I don't think this takes the heat off the schools. I think it spreads the heat around," said Nancy Chockley, whose Washington-based nonprofit, the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, researches healthcare issues.