A Closer Look at Trends in Youth Obesity

After a period of aggressive growth, obesity rates among American youth have stabilized somewhat in the last decade. Unfortunately, this good news may distract from the trend data indicating that obesity remains a cause for concern among certain sub-groups of youth.

In the paper, Increasing socioeconomic disparities in adolescent obesity, authors Carl B. Frederick, Kaisa Snellman, and Robert D. Putnam discuss the idea of income level as a kind of dividing line in recent obesity trends. In the early 2000’s, obesity rates declined for youth in higher socioeconomic categories, while slowing down or increasing among lower-income groups.  The authors found that youth with college-educated parents also experienced a decline in obesity. Due to the national sample limitations, the interaction of race+class was not tested.

Examining weight management as an equation of calories taken in versus calories expended, these findings indicate that lower income youth and/or youth with parents who had a high school education consumed more calories than their higher income peers and reported less recreational activity or exercise.  Issues of transportation to markets that carry a wide variety of items including produce, budget limits and the lure of easy to prepare, tasty (but processed) foods all likely play a role in consumption habits, but that is only half of the equation.  The authors note that in 2003, 86.6 percent of adolescent children with college-educated parents reported playing a sport or exercising for at least 20 minutes during the past 7 days compared to 79.8 percent of youth with high-school educated parents.  In 2010, the gap in exercise/recreation time increased to 91 percent and 80.4 percent, respectively.  Also, at a time when high school sport participation is at record levels, Frederick et al., point out that participation in school sports is declining among lower-income students.

Is income level a factor in youth recreation?

An article in ESPN the Magazine by Bruce Kelley and Carl Carchia dives into the data on youth sports participation, citing research from Dr. Don Sabo, Professor at D’Youville College and Co-Director of their Center for Research on Physical Activity, Sport & Health (CRPASH), that points to household income as the primary factor in how early a child begins playing sports. The article refers to Sabo’s work again in noting that low-income boys (27 percent) and low-income girls (17 percent) were among the least likely groups to be on multiple teams (3 or more) during grades 3 through 8. In addition, the report Progress Without Equity: The Provision of High School Athletic Opportunity in the United States, by Gender 1993-94 through 2005-06, published by the Women’s Sports Foundation (Dr. Sabo is a co-author), found differences in access to recreation, noting that opportunities for athletic participation for students was lowest among urban schools (compared to town, suburban and rural) during the research period.

Trend data indicate that the message to eat healthier and move more is making an impact, but perhaps only among certain social classes, particularly those with the resources to enroll their children in school and club sports.  With childhood obesity linked to physical health risks as well as risk-taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol experimentation and conflicts with peers, is it time to lessen the focus on “awareness” and look at realistic ways to increase physical activity for all youth?



Report Citations:

 Social Sciences – Social Sciences – Biological Sciences – Medical Sciences: Carl B. Frederick, Kaisa Snellman, and Robert D. Putnam Increasing socioeconomic disparities in adolescent obesity PNAS 2014; published ahead of print January 13, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1321355110

Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. (2011). Progress Without Equity: The Provision of High School Athletic Opportunity in the United States, by Gender 1993-94 through 2005-06. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

GAO Examines Opportunities for Students with Disabilities in PE, Sports

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reviewed the participation of students with disabilities in school-based physical education (PE) and athletic activities.

Their report, released late last month, found that students with disabilities did not receive less PE class time, exercise or instruction. In addition, data indicated students with disabilities participated in sports activities, albeit at a lower rate than their peers. This difference was influenced by several factors including type of disability, a lack of information on provision of and outreach around athletic activities for students with disabilities, financial obstacles and a lack of clarity regarding the responsibility of the schools to provide such opportunities.

A copy of the complete report, STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES: More Information and Guidance Could Improve Opportunities in Physical Education and Athletics is available here.