Warning, parents. When your kids are out of school, their potential to gain weight goes up. Paul T. von Hippel, an associate professor at the Center for Health and Social Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, worked with Joseph Workman of Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. They crunched the data using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and published their findings in the Obesity Symposium this fall.
The longitudinal study measured the heights and weights of 18,170 U.S. children in the 2010-2011 kindergarten class. It took measurements in fall and spring through their second-grade years.
What the number crunching told von Hippel and Workman might surprise parents. We think of our kids as being more active in the summer. They swim, they run around, they might even be outside more than in the winter. Yet, they also gain weight. In fact, the numbers showed that the only time the prevalence of obesity or being overweight rose among these 18,170 kids was the summer between their kindergarten and first-grade years and the summer between their second-grade and first-grade years.
What this study seems to point to is that kids’ behaviors change in the summer. “The out-of-school influences are affecting obesity,” von Hippel says. He points to things like unlimited access to food all day long and more time spent on sedentary activities such as watching TV or playing on the computer, as some of the possible factors.
These rises in obesity or being overweight also suggests that the emphasis on school-based healthy eating education is not working.
“Obesity rates are still where they were in 2004,” von Hippel says. That was the time where more concern about what kids were being served in school cafeterias and how much exercise they were getting in school lead to some changes in cafeteria menus and schools adding more teaching of health values such as Go, Slow and Whoa Foods and the importance of exercise.
Von Hippel has some ideas of what can be done to limit the effect summer vacation, winter break and spring break can have on children.
He’d like to see more summer activity programs for kids to be active, as well as families exercising together and eating better during breaks. When he looks at the role TV might be playing, it might not just be the sedentary activity of it. It could also be the amount of food marketing directed toward children.
All eyes are on Chile right now. It recently banned food marketing to children, including television commercials, for foods that are high in sugar, sodium, calories and fat. Sugar cereal boxes there also come with warning labels.
Researchers will study Chile’s obesity rates and see if they go down with these changes.
There are things parents can do right now to reduce the weight gain during these breaks.
Pediatricians talk about these numbers — 9-5-2-1-0: Nine hours of sleep a night, five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, two hours or less of screen time (though recently that has changed to be more about quality screen time verses quantity), at least one hour of physical activity a day and zero sugar-added drinks (including juice, sports drinks, sodas, sweetened waters).
This might mean you check your pantry and refrigerator for what foods you are keeping on-hand. Are they healthy or are they the junk food we all crave that tends to multiply this time of year? Sub out the candy, cookies and chips for more fruits and vegetables.
You also can encourage water drinking by filling stockings with cool water bottles or adding pitchers of water with slices of cucumber, lemons or limes to your refrigerator.
Winter break also doesn’t have to mean unlimited screen time. Shut off the TV, the tablets, the computers, the phones and head outside for a walk to see the neighbors’ Christmas lights or play a pick up game of basketball, tennis or soccer as a family
You also can download the Choose Healthier app and see where all the family recreational exercise activities are in town, and do some of them as a family.
And don’t forget the importance of sleep. Try to keep everyone close to the school schedule for bedtime. It will make January 3 a lot easier.
Still need ideas of how to be healthier at home? The YMCA has the MEND program, which teaches families healthier eating and exercise.