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Researchers Find Promising Trends in Kids' Healthy Behaviors

Kid playing

The public health efforts focused on increasing physical activity and other healthy habits appear to be working. Childhood obesity may be leveling off, and kids are getting slightly more exercise and watching less TV, suggests a new study.

Using the results of three separate surveys conducted in middle and high school (6th through 10th grades) over the past decade, researchers with the University of Massachusetts Boston have found the following “encouraging” trends in children’s health behaviors:

• The number of days that kids report being physically active for at least 60 minutes increased from 4.3 in 2001-2002 to 4.5 in 2009-2010.
• Kids are eating breakfast more often during the week before school – 3.3 school days each week versus only 3 on previous surveys.
• The number of hours students spent watching TV fell from 3.1 to 2.4, with drops in both weekday and weekend viewing. Other screen time hours (ie: video games, computers) remained steady.
Fruit and vegetable consumption increased slightly, but remained at less than one daily serving of each on average.
• Consumption of sweets and soft drinks decreased.

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The number of survey participants that were overweight or obese did not decline – but it did not increase either. Rates of obesity (as defined by body mass index, or BMI) rose from 10.3% in 2001-2002 to 12.7% in 2005-2006, then held steady through the final survey.

"The fact that (obesity) is leveling off, that's a surprise and a major change from the steady increase that we've seen," says Ronald Iannotti PhD, who worked on the study while at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, MD. "This is great news."

"This is encouraging, because at least it looks like things have kind of stabilized, and at least they're not going in the wrong direction," said Marian Huhman, not involved with the study but who studies health communication and health campaigns at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Maybe it just takes a few years for the outcomes of obesity changes to follow from the behavioral changes.”

Journal reference: Iannotti RJ, Wang J "Trends in physical activity, sedentary behavior, diet, and BMI among US adolescents, 2001-2009" Pediatrics 2013; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-1488.