Study: Kids who play sports less likely to be obese

By James Peng

Childhood obesity — which has tripled since 1980 and now affects roughly 12.5 million children under 19 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control — has captured the attention of several Dartmouth College faculty members and researchers, including Geisel School of Medicine pediatrics professor Madeline Dalton and economics professor Patricia Anderson.

Dalton and her research team completed a study, published Monday in Pediatrics, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, that showed the effectiveness of team sports in reducing adolescent obesity.

Anderson is currently finalizing a paper looking at the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on children’s weight, according to Anderson.

Dalton’s paper, titled “Influence of Sports, Physical Education and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status,” examined the relationship between participation in different types of physical activity and children’s weight.

The research team examined data from 1,718 high school students and concluded that adolescents participating in at least two different sports teams over the course of a year are 26 percent less likely to be obese than their less-than-two-sport counterparts.

They also found that these students were 11 percent less likely to be overweight or obese than students who were not members of at least two different teams.

“In team sports, kids have regular practice and more consistent moderate physical activity, and that’s why they’re more protected [from obesity],” Dalton said.

Children participating in only one sports team, however, did not have a significantly lower risk for being obese or overweight.

Additionally, participating in casual and less rigorous physical activity was not associated with a lower rate of obesity, Dalton said.

The results of the study also indicate that the prevalence of obesity is approximately 22 percent lower for students who walk or bike to school four to five times per week, which is a trend unseen in previous studies, according to Dalton.

Approximately 29 percent of all survey participants were overweight or obese, and roughly 75 percent participated in at least one team sport, according to the article.

Dalton said that the biggest limitation of the study was its design as an observational research project and not an experimental study.

“We performed the study by looking at associations that exist, not by randomizing kids with different levels of physical activity,” she said.

Dalton said that the girls surveyed tended to underestimate their weight while boys tended to overestimate their height.

This trend, however, did not affect the results, as the research team validated much of the self-reported data and after analysis did not find any significant deviations.

Anderson, who performed her research with Wellesley College professor Kristin Butcher and Northwestern University professor Diane Schanzenbach, researched how “accountability pressures” from the No Child Left Behind Act affect childhood obesity rates.

The research team is currently revising their paper before they submit it to a journal for publication, Anderson said.

Due to pressure to increase standardized test scores, schools have reduced recess time and physical education courses.

Schools have also increased the number of food-based incentives and rewards such as bake sales and parties, Anderson said.

Schools have also increased the amount of junk food served in cafeterias in response to the budgetary pressures of the No Child Left Behind, according to Anderson.

“Schools facing increased pressures to produce academic outcomes may reallocate their efforts in ways that have unintended consequences for children’s health,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

Anderson examined the “most pressured” K-12 institutions in Arkansas, which has a large amount of data available for the obesity and test proficiency rates of each school, according to Anderson. These “pressured” schools, which had a passing rate within five percentage points of the adequate yearly progress threshold set by No Child Left Behind, were the most likely to cut physical activity in order to promote academic success, Anderson said.

The study indicated that students in these schools were, on average, 1 percent more likely to be overweight than those at other schools.

Anderson said that this difference, though seemingly negligible, was statistically significant given the number of schools that were sampled.

“The basic gist of the results are that maybe there are some side effects of No Child Left Behind,” Anderson said.

Both Dalton and Anderson said they plan on conducting future research to both expand and confirm the results of their studies.

Dalton said she plans to perform a study examining children’s weight in relation to physical activity alternatives for those who are not athletically inclined.

Anderson said she will analyze data a second pool of data from California middle schools and high schools to further explore her study’s conclusions.

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