New signs of improvement in the youth obesity epidemic?

Third-graders at Nickerson Elementary School in Hutchinson, Kan., dash under a parachute during the 15th annual Kansas Kids Fitness Day, which offered students a chance to get exercise through fun activities. (Photo: Aaron Marineau, AP)There's more evidence to suggest the USA's epidemic of childhood obesity is stabilizing, and the reasons may be that kids are eating better and watching less TV.
Between 2001 and 2009, U.S. adolescents increased physical activity, ate more fruits and vegetables, ate breakfast more, watched less TV and ate fewer sweets, a new study says.
"It's only recently, in the past decade, that some studies have begun to see some leveling off" in obesity-related behaviors, says Ronald Iannotti, chairman of the department of exercise and health sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and co-author of the study in October's Pediatrics, online Monday.
"Seeing this pattern is very encouraging," he says. They worked with kids as young as 11, he adds, and saw the trend "in younger kids as well."
Iannotti and co-author Jing Wang did the research while with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md.
They analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of 35,000 kids ages 11 to 16, collected in 2001, 2005 and 2009. Kids reported on their diets, physical activity, height and weight, which was used to calculate body mass index. The average BMI increased over the nine years but declined between 2005 and 2009, from 62.33 to 62.07 (both in the normal range). Statistically, there was no change, Iannotti says, but where "we had been seeing an increasing trend, we don't see that between 2005 and 2009."
In the study, most adolescents fell far short of the recommended 60-plus minutes a day of physical activity seven days a week, but the number of days they got that amount increased significantly between 2001 and 2009, from 4.33 to 4.53.
Consumption of fruits increased from an average of two to four days a week in 2001 to five or six in 2009; vegetables from an average of two to four days a week to almost five. Sugary soft drink consumption declined from almost five drinks a day to about four. The average number of days a week they ate breakfast increased from 2.98 to 3.25.
"Over the previous decades, the pattern had been that kids were getting less physical activity, and it's been very hard to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption," Iannotti says. "We've got a long way to go, but the good news is that those are increasing." Among other findings:
• Boys reported getting more physical activity than girls but also playing more video games and watching more TV. Overall, there was a decrease in time spent watching TV, the most prevalent sedentary behavior.
• Girls logged more computer time for social media, homework and Internet use.
• Girls ate more fruits and vegetables than boys, but also more sweets and fewer breakfasts.
The study suggests that pediatricians may need to tailor health advice to teens based on gender, Iannotti says.
Findings are consistent with other recent studies, "including results from numerous cities and states indicating some initial declines in the prevalence of childhood obesity," says Melissa Laska, an associate health professor at the University of Minnesota. She was not involved in the study.
"We may be beginning to see the results of our comprehensive efforts at many levels — in schools, communities, clinical care settings and beyond — but there is still much work that needs to be done," she says.

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