Fattest children are watching TV at highest rate, study finds Hopkins report warns of early sedentary habit, health impact later in life

March 25, 1998|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Parked in front of their television sets, millions of American children are getting fatter and priming themselves for a sedentary, obese adulthood.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center who combed through a federal health survey found that the fattest children were the ones who watched the most television. It was impossible to conclude that TV watching caused obesity -- but doctors involved in the study strongly suspected this was so.

"It's a very sedentary habit where kids are not burning calories," said Dr. Ross E. Andersen, an obesity specialist at Bayview. "Kids who are watching television are more likely to be bombarded with commercials from fast-food restaurants. They are constantly being offered cues to eat, and a lot of the foods advertised on television are high-fat foods."

Scientists used data on 4,063 children between the ages of 8 and 16 who participated in the Third National Health and Nutrition Survey, a broad-based effort to assess the nation's health from different angles.

About a quarter of the children watched television for at least four hours a day, the researchers found. The rate was highest for black children, of whom 43 percent said they reached that level.

Anderson speculated that parents' concerns about crime -- plus a lack of supervision in households because parents are at work -- have made television a haven for children. But the health consequences are alarming.

"The kids who watched four or more hours a day were significantly fatter than the rest," Andersen said. To assess body fat, federal researchers used a caliper to measure the thickness of two "fat folds" -- one around the waist and another beneath the shoulder blades. This is considered a key indicator of the amount of total body mass that is given over to fat.

Researchers found that the folds became progressively thicker among children who watched more and more television. For instance, the folds were 25 percent thicker among children who watched at least four hours of television a day than among children who watched less than two hours.

Parents have every reason to worry about their children's weight, Andersen said. Other studies have shown that overweight children are more likely to become fat adults, and fat adults are at increased risk for sickness and premature death.

In an editorial, Dr. Thomas N. Robinson of the Stanford University School of Medicine said the study does not necessarily mean that children get fat because they watch too much television. It is possible, he wrote, that "watching more television could be the consequence of being overweight."

"The jury is still out on the question of whether television viewing is an important cause of overweight among children, although that should not stop parents and children from substituting less sedentary activities for sitting in front of the television, videocassette recorder, computer and video game."

When they looked at the amount of physical activity children are XTC getting, they found both encouraging and disturbing trends.

Fully 80 percent of the children exercised hard at least three times a week -- a goal set by the government's Healthy People 2000 program. But as children aged, boys were more likely than girls to stick with sports.

Andersen speculated that by their mid-teens, many girls lose their interest in sports and are abetted by fiscally strapped high schools that make physical education an elective.

"These young women are not finding the curriculum in high school appealing enough to stick with it," he said.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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