Monday, May 11, 2009

Why the food and exercise police are unsuccessful

The human body is an amazing thing. Amazing! As every dieter knows, if you cut back on its fuel one day, you'll feel hungrier the next as your body tries to compensate. Turns out the same model applies when it comes to physical activity. If you give kids more gym time, more time spent running around, they become less active when they're not in school.

At least, that what a new study done in the Netherlands shows. The study results, presented last week at the European Congress on Obesity, demonstrated yet again why trying to manipulate kids' eating habits and weight through "interventions" is ineffective. Researchers looked at kids from three schools, who got 9.2, 2.4, or 1.7 hours of scheduled phys ed time in a school week, and found that kids' activity levels averaged out to be exactly the same no matter how much gym they got in school. Those who didn't get much PE time at school became more active at home, while those who got a lot of PE in school did less at home.

"We believe the range of activity among children, from the slothful to the hyperactive, reflects not the range in environmental opportunities, but the range of individual activity set-points in the brains of children," said Alissa Frémaux, a biostatistician (I didn't even know there was such a thing! very cool) who analyzed the study.

I think more PE time in schools is a great thing, especially when there are big gaps in the socioeconomic status of kids. While some kids get carted around to ballet and soccer, too many kids have no opportunities outside of school to move, be active, exercise, and have physical fun. So I'm all for piling it on at school.

Just don't expect more gym time to equal thinner children. And don't think that lowering the fat content of school lunches will translate into thinner kids, either.*

*I am deliberately leaving aside the notion of whether these are desirable outcomes. The plain truth is that they're not achievable. Constant readers know what I think anyway.

**Thanks, as usual, to Jane for pointing me toward this research.


Rachel said...

I always hated gym throughout school, but I now agree that it is certainly deserving of its place in a school curriculum with one caveat: that it emphasize fun and joyful movement. I remember in grade school playing games like dodgeball and such for fun. That fun disappeared in middle and high schools. I hated gym mostly for the simple fact that it was presented as a kind of punishment. We always did calisthenics while being yelled at by a very intimidating gym teacher, or he'd send us to run the track while he sat and read a book. We went to the weight room in high school, and that was fun, but we weren't properly trained on the machines at all. I knew lots of kids who'd take gym in summer school just so they'd avoid it during the school year.

I also wonder if kids would be more active out of school if they weren't expected to complete three hours of homework each night. I cover 30-plus schools that run the gamut of socioeconomic status and even the schools in low-income communities send kids home with lots of homework. By the time you complete homework, eat dinner, take a bath and prepare for bed, there isn't a whole lot of free time to just be a kid.

Cammy said...

Just as, if you ban junk food in schools, any reasonable child will realize they can hit the cookies as soon as they get home in the afternoon. There is so much hysteria over childhood obesity (not to say it isn't a valid issue, but the way it's approached is often shallow), and they are adding kids' bodies to the long list of unenforceable power struggles that are interwoven into our school systems.

vesta44 said...

Sandy, at JFS, had a good post on those interventions at schools and how younger and younger kids are ending with up eating disorders. Some of the kids are in dire straits by the time they're brought to the hospital, suffering from starvation and malnutrition because they're afraid to eat anything that isn't "healthy" (read low-fat, low-salt, and no sugar), and they're over-exercising. The problem is, doctors don't want to diagnose these starving kids with anorexia because some of them are still "fat" or of "normal" weight (WTFever that is) and aren't walking skeletons. These "health" programs in schools, teaching kids what is supposedly ok to eat are going to create a generation of adults with disordered attitudes about food and their bodies, not to mention all the health problems adults have when they've starved as children.

Lori said...

I agree that more gym time in school is good, but I also think it needs to be something that works for every kid. Some people love team sports and get great pleasure from them, and hate having to do aerobics or running in gym class. Me, I hate team sports, at least the way they worked in gym class. I'm both uncoordinated and very uncompetitive, so it was just not a fun situation. I loved gym class, on the other hand, when we were given the option of doing something like step aerobics or yoga or walking and jogging around the nearby park. And, as an adult, I still enjoy aerobics, walking, and yoga for exercise, and still don't enjoy team sports.

So much of my gym class experience revolved around having sports "tournaments" that 90% of the time I loathed gym class. I think there should be some sort of non- or at least less-competitive option for team sports (I once ended up on a really terrible volleyball team that had no chance of winning the tournament, so nobody on it cared how we did, and it was great fun) or the option to do something non-sports related. In NJ where I grew up you had gym class every day, every year, and at times, for me, it was really hellish, because I was forced for months on end to play games I was terrible at and hated with people who were, IMO, taking them ridiculously seriously and would yell at me and anybody else who wasn't good at them. So I'm all for more activity in school, but I think it needs to take into consideration the interests and temperaments of the kids involved, and be geared toward instilling a lifelong love of activity, rather than a lifelong aversion to it.

Harriet said...

Yes, that's a whole nother rant, Vesta!

wriggles said...

We believe the range of activity among children, from the slothful to the hyperactive, reflects not the range in environmental opportunities, but the range of individual activity set-points in the brains of children,"This seems to contradict this:' activity levels averaged out to be exactly the same no matter how much gym they got in school If children get more or less the same amount of physical activity, why speak of 'hyperactive' or 'slothful'?

MigiziNse-ikwe said...

I think the word 'slothful' in and of itself is such a loaded term, full of Biblical connotations of SIN!!!!!!1101!

Good post and thanks for pointing out that article.

Rich said...

Great study, though unfortunately one which the British media decided to spin as 'well if exercise won't solve the obesity epidemic, we'll just have to redouble our efforts to starve and shame it out of them instead'.

On the other hand, it might at least scupper some of this talk of subjecting kids to seven hours of PE each week, or even extending the school day so they can cram more in. Whilst I appreciate that many kids are full of energy and love hurling themselves off the scenery chasing a ball, others are far happier in a quiet corner of the library, and trying to force them out onto a sports field against their will because some expert says they 'should' be moving more (especially if they're fat) only breeds resentment.

I should know; I was the latter. Like Rachel and Lori I have plenty of PE horror stories, but even if I hadn't been subjected to the abject misery of a freezing, wet rugby field in December being yelled at by some sadistic git whilst dressed in little more than underwear, I still don't think I would exercise for pleasure, it's just not something I've ever had the slightest interest in doing..

Bree said...

Gym classes are still stuck in the 50s. They need to offer more individual alternatives to team sports. Not everyone is the next Cal Ripken or Serena Williams. They also need to do away with Superfit. All that does is increase the level of ridicule for fat kids and thin kids who aren't naturally athletic.

I've heard some schools use Dance, Dance Revolution. Unfortunately, it's being touted for weight loss and not just physical activity, but it's a start towards doing something different in PE.

Meowser said...

PE was a frickin' torture chamber for me. I was unbelievably uncoordinated and clumsy and unathletically built, and kids treated me like poison for it. I honestly think I started getting picked on in earnest when we started having gym class. And how much exercise is playing a competitive sport in gym, anyway? Mostly you're standing around waiting for ups or for something to be hit or thrown towards you. I like the Dance Dance Revolution idea a lot better, as long as they aren't scoring that, too.

But really, keeping kids after school for workouts? On top of three hours of homework? No wonder nobody wants to grow up, if nobody ever really gets a chance to be young.

Harriet said...

No shit, Meowser. Of course, if schools weren't spending hours a day prepping kids for standardized tests, they'd have plenty of time for actual learning.

Oops--another rant here too!

lilacsigil said...

I was a clumsy and slightly overweight teenager (but noticeably the fattest in my very athletic school) and I hated PE. But there was one year, where we had a female teacher (also a maths teacher) who concentrated on moving around for fun and energy, and playing "everyone in" games like tunnel-ball, gentle obstacle courses and dancing, and that year was great.

She was also very careful to make sure everyone could do the activities, always had alternatives (if you didn't want to jump a hurdle you could run a circle around it instead - just as much energy expended without fear or shaming) and always ruthlessly shot down teasing or shaming. She never let us choose teams, either. She let me see that good PE is achievable - with common sense and kindness. I kept playing weekend sport for another two years after her...but our next PE teacher was an ex-Navy WWII veteran bodybuilder named Mr Payne (yes, seriously) and he lived up to every possible stereotype.

mary said...

I'm late in the rant but so agree with you all. Formal education needs more place for free play for kids, not necessarily PE, a class that makes many cringe and feel so inadequate. Something has always felt wrong to me about the way we educate rather than allow people to really learn, again another direction but one I'm passionate about. There's no equality in making an artist be a book keeper unless they want to be one. In fact they never gave a darn if a person learned how to be more creative....the best way to invent and be an original. I know far too many who have genius IQ's but can't get beyond being a storage for information..often useless. LOL
We need to challenge the media to be putting pressure on the world to be more tolerant....make this a challenge. We need to stop letting them dictate to us what we like, want, or need and live our lives by example. I'm going to plant some lettuce and tomatoes today and start some squash. Not rocket science but food. I'm going to do the best I can to live my life without fighting with what's obviously one big commercial. I'm mad at a lot of things in the world right along with you Harriet. Still, I'm going to be happy anyway!
Keep telling it.