Obesity and Academics: Does the Research Tip the Scales?

Michiel1972 at nl.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Common sense tells us that obesity isn’t good for anyone, and that it is a particularly heart-breaking in children. But what is the impact of obesity on kids beyond the physical—what impact does it have on academic performance? There’s no shortage of research on the issue, but steadfast conclusions may be lacking.

In June, a study using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K)—quite the popular source for longitudinal data going back to children’s early years in school—suggested a connection between obesity and more math performance.  Specifically, the study found that both boys and girls who were persistently obese throughout the K-5 years had worse math performance than their peers; boys with “later onset obesity” showed no significant difference in math performance from their peers, though girls in this group performed significantly worse than their peers. (I’m not getting into research showing that girls have greater “math anxiety” than do boys, but it feels wrong not to mention it here). This study should be taken with a grain of salt (but just a grain, since that’s a dicey health topic too!); while the authors noted that internalizing behaviors may connect obesity to having a rough time in math class, they also noted their research cannot be used to determine correlation, and called for continuing research.

Well, hang about, said the British Economic and Social Research Council, not so fast. Their study, published just this month, used a British longitudinal data set of children born in the early 1990s. When not controlling for any other variable, the researchers found obesity had a small impact on academic performance; however, when controlling for genetic traits thought to cause obesity, the research did not indicate a direct link between obesity and poor performance. This study had been crafted specifically to determine whether there was a causal relationship between the two, but these researchers believe studies that have found a link likely were affected by some other variable—for example, socioeconomic status. This team also called for more research on factors contributing to obesity and poor academic performance (let’s admit it—you’re not going to hear a researcher say “Alright, folks, let’s pack it in! This is beyond conclusive!” Just not our nature).

Yet another recent study (hat tip to Bryan Toporek’s Schooled in Sports blog at Education Week, which looked at all three of these studies) switched things around: rather than asking about the impact of obesity, it looked at early risk factors for childhood obesity. Canadian researchers dug into their longitudinal data sets and found that the amount of daily TV time for children ages 2-4 was negatively correlated with fitness levels in elementary school. Particularly with news that preschoolers are becoming a hot demographic among television producers, parents need to understand that television for young children can have a long-term impact. Lead researcher Caroline Fitzpatrick said it best: “TV is a modifiable lifestyle factor, and people need to be aware that toddler viewing habits may contribute to subsequent physical health.” It should go without saying that this team also called for more research.

So, what are parents, doctors, policymakers, and teachers to do with this information overload? There’s research for that, too! The Pew Health Group has this nifty video on public support for healthy food in schools, to ensure kids are getting brain food. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution have some scary stats stressing the need for improved food education so kids learn to make good dietary choices. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommendations on limiting media exposure (videos, TV, computers, and yes, mobile apps) for children under age 2 and well as slightly older children. At my day job, I’ve co-authored a blog on the need for providing nutritious meals to preschoolers in state-funded pre-K programs; my co-author and co-worker extraordinaire, Jen Fitzgerald, also tackled the issue during National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. And we can’t forget First Lady’s Michelle Obama’s efforts on the Let’s Move! campaign which offers suggestions on healthy eating and activities at home, in school, and in your community.

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