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Weight Control

Childhood Obesity Doubled in a Generation

The number of obese children has grown dramatically in the past two decades, more than doubling in one generation, a new study has found.

The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Buffalo, The Johns Hopkins University, the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at the rate of obesity among children between the ages of 8 and 16. One of the factors in the startling increase: television-watching, researchers say.

"There needs to be a national campaign to increase the opportunities for boys and girls to participate in lifetime physical activities," said Dr. Carlos Crespo, UB associate professor of social and preventive medicine and first author of the study. "At the same time, we should have a national health objective of limiting children to two hours or less of television-watching a day."

Researchers analyzed data from 4,069 children who took part in CDC's Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted between 1988 and 1994. They then assessed the relationship between television-watching, energy intake, physical activity and obesity.

Children received a physical exam and answered a number of questions about their lives, including how much and what kinds of food they ate during the previous 24 hours, how many hours of television they watched, and how many times a week they were active enough to breathe hard or work up a sweat.

Among the findings:

  • Nearly half of U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 16 watch more than two hours of television a day.

  • Sixty-five percent of black children and 53 percent of Mexican-American children watched more than three hours of TV a day, compared with 37 percent of white children. Seventeen percent of black children watched for five hours or more a day.

  • The prevalence of obesity increased as hours of TV-watching increased.

  • The number of calories consumed increased as the number of hours of TV-watching increased; total calories were higher for boys than girls.

  • Only a little more than half of the children engaged in physical activity five or more days a week.

The results showed a closer association between television-watching and obesity than between TV-watching and physical activity, Crespo said, because it was hard for children to accurately recall how much exercise they took part in.

"If you ask how many hours they watch TV, they can do that quickly," Crespo said. "Physical activity is harder to quantify. Nevertheless, if they're watching TV, they aren't exercising."

The lack of physical activity was particularly evident for girls between 14 and 16 years old, when less than one-third are active, he said.

For many girls, particularly those living in "marginal" neighborhoods, the issue is safety, he noted.

"Kids in 'bad' neighborhoods, especially girls, are told to go directly home from school and stay there," Crespo said. "Boys have more freedom to roam the neighborhood and can be more active. Many kids are home alone after school and with little else to do, they watch TV and they eat."

Results showed that girls who watched five or more hours of TV a day consumed 175 more calories daily than girls who watched one hour or less.

© 2001 Health Resources Publishing