Childhood Obesity

What We Can Learn from Existing Data on Societal Trends, Pt. 1

Published in: Preventing Chronic Disease, v. 2, no. 1, Jan. 2005, p. 1-9

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2004

by Roland Sturm

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The number of overweight and obese youth has increased in recent decades, and numerous theories on causes have been proposed. Yet almost no data are available to assess how the lives of children have changed during the obesity epidemic. What are children and adolescents now doing with their time that they did not do before? Are they participating less in sports? Watching more television? Doing more homework? Without tracking these broader societal changes, it is difficult to identify the most (and least) promising areas for interventions. This two-part report compiles trend data for several areas. Part 1 discusses trends in time use, homework, and media use; part 2 discusses trends in transportation, physical education, and diet. The main findings of this article are the following: One, the free time of children has substantially declined because of increased time away from home, primarily in school, day care, and after-school programs. Two, participation in organized activities (including sports) has also increased. Three, unstructured playtime has decreased to make room for organized activities. Four, time spent in some sedentary activities like watching television, participating in conversations, or taking part in other passive leisure activities also declined just when obesity became a major concern. Five, increases in homework have not caused decreases in free time, contradicting a common belief in education circles.

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