Jan Hoffman shared in th New York Times that summer is the season when children play outdoors tirelessly until nightfall, burning up all the energy they had stockpiled throughout the school year, right?
Reality check: According to a new national studyof younger elementary school students, the risk of gaining excessive weight is far greater during the summer than when they are in school.
A nationally representative sample of 18,170 kindergartners was weighed in the early fall and again in the late spring from 2010 through 2013, when the children were finishing second grade. The prevalence of children who were overweight increased to 28.7 percent from 23.3 percent. The prevalence of those who measured as obese grew to 11.5 percent from 8.9 percent. Most strikingly, according to the study published on Wednesday in the journal Obesity, all of the increases were during the summer breaks. No increase in the prevalence of being overweight or obese was seen during the school year.
“It’s dispiriting how little progress we can see as a result of all these school-based fitness and nutrition programs,” said Paul von Hippel, the lead author and an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He was referring to initiatives such as soda bans, recalibrated school cafeteria food and more attention to physical education and nutrition curriculums.
“But it makes sense if you believe that schools were never the problem to begin with. Nor can they be much of the solution,” added Mr. von Hippel, who said that family education and access to summer fitness programs needed to be bolstered.
The research is the most rigorous and long-term in a growing collection of evidence suggesting that children’s ability to maintain a healthy weight can slip when they are out of school, much like their reading and math skills.
The complex factors that contribute to this phenomenon are only beginning to be examined. Experts note that in the summer, children do not have a strict, school-defined schedule, so they spend more sedentary time snacking in front of screens. They go to bed later and get less sleep (which can contribute to weight gain). And because heat renders them sluggish, they can be less active.
By contrast, despite school’s limitations, it offers a built-in protective structure for weight-and-fitness maintenance. During the academic year, meal times at home and school become more fixed; sleep is better regulated; physical education and recess, however minimal, is in the schedule; and, most critically, by being in class during the day and doing homework afterward, students have less time for screens.