Youngsters Lose Pounds, Gain Fitness

Study proves efficacy of innovative, child-friendly strategies for losing weight and gaining nutritional knowledge and physical fitness skills.

Taking a tricep skinfold measurement.

To help determine the amount of body fat, John Foreyt, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine takes a tricep skinfold measurement of a Houston middle school student participating in a health and nutrition study.

courtesy Agricultural Research Service/Peggy Greb

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Innovative, child-friendly strategies for losing weight and gaining nutrition savvy – plus physical fitness skills – are emerging from scientific studies funded by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

For example, investigators Craig A. Johnston, John P. Foreyt and Chermaine Tyler and their colleagues are building upon one of their earlier studies in which many of their Texas middle-school participants achieved weight-management success. The volunteers were primarily Hispanic children who were either overweight or at risk of becoming so.

The researchers are with the ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where Johnston and Tyler are instructors in nutrition and Foreyt is a professor of medicine.

Statistics that the scientists reported for the six-month study were based on 57 overweight youngsters who were assigned to either a self- and parent-taught program, or an intensive, instructor-led regimen.

For instance, once a week for the first three months of the investigation, children in the self-taught group spent time in study hall reading a self-help weight-management textbook for youngsters. Meanwhile, their peers in the instructor-led team spent four class periods a week outdoors, improving their physical fitness, with a fifth weekly session spent indoors, learning about nutrition, healthy eating, and behavior-change skills essential for living an active lifestyle and making healthful food choices.

When evaluated at the end of the six-month study, youngsters in the intensive, instructor-led course had significantly greater weight loss as well as greater "physical quality of life" – as measured by their answers to a standard questionnaire – than did the youngsters in the self-taught program. What's more, one and two years later, youngsters in the instructor-led team had significantly greater decreases in their body mass index, or BMI, than did the self-taught youngsters.

These preliminary results suggest that a school-based weight-management program might be effective in reaching large numbers of children, according to the scientists. They published their findings in the journal Obesity in 2009 and in Pediatrics in 2007.

Read more about this research in the March 2010 Agricultural Research magazine special issue on preventing childhood obesity.

ARS is the chief intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Houston research helps improve children's nutrition and health, a USDA top priority.