Taking the pulse–do exercise programs get kids in shape?

New York Times blogger Gretchen Reynolds, in her Oct. 3, 2012, piece, Do Exercise Programs Help Children Stay Fit?, profiled a recent British journal article that shows such weight-reducing and health-promoting efforts from the past two decades have flopped. (Scroll below to take a quick one-question pool on this very question.)

Citing the study published by Brad Metcalf and colleagues in the August 2012 edition of the journal BMJ (a journal accessible to all users), Reynolds reports that the authors found that “programs almost never increase overall daily physical activity. The youngsters run around during the intervention period, then remain stubbornly sedentary during the rest of the day.”

Two decades of interventions to help kids move more and weigh less may be failing.
Two decades of interventions to help kids move more and weigh less may be failing.

The British team of researchers from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in England found 30 acceptable studies that met their criteria for examining if exercise interventions for kids work. The articles reviewed were published between January 1990 and March 2012. According to Reynolds, the programs simply failed to do what they were supposed to do: get young people to move more.

The article said their data covered 14,326 participants–6,153 with accelerometers that measured physical activity. The authors concluded that interventions “had only a small effect (approximately 4 minutes more walking or running per day) on children’s overall activity levels. This finding may explain, in part, why such interventions have had limited success in reducing the body mass index or body fat of children.”

An accompanying editorial  by Sally and Richard Greenhill notes that current United Kingdom guidelines state that all children and adolescents should have 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day. And in the United Kingdom, only a third of boys and a fifth of boys are meeting those guidelines. In the United States matters are worse, and kids’ levels of inactivity now ranks as harried parents’ No. 1 concern, according to an August 22, 2012, USA Today story. Yet, parents appear to be a big part of the problem, too, along with ubiquitous and highly, highly, highly addictive technology. Nearly six out of 10 children spend less than four days a week playing outside because “parents find it more convenient to spend time in front of a television or computer.”

Times writer/blogger Reynolds quoted Frank Booth, a professor of physiology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who worked on the meta-analsysis in the BMJ: “So if structured classes and programs are not getting children to move more, what, if anything, can be done to increase physical activity in the young? It’s a really difficult problem.”

Such a finding begs the question: Do interventions to promote physical activity work, or are they a waste of time and resources?

Maine’s Efforts: Cutting Edge or a Good Idea Needing a Makeover?

The Let's Go program in Maine is one of many in the United States trying to get kids to exercise for an hour daily.
The Let’s Go program in Maine is one of many in the United States trying to get kids to exercise for an hour daily.

One influential program, that combines exercise with nutrition and is being duplicated across the country, is the Let’s Go! 5-2-1-0 program from Maine. This stands for:

5 – fruits and veggies,
2 – hours or less of recreational screen time,
1 – hour or more of physical activity, and
0 – sugary drinks, more water, and low-fat milk [editorial note, I find the promotion of milk as a drink for kids questionable, given the inordinate influence of big agri-business on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the availability of other fortified, non-dairy drinks].

Let’s Go! founders claim the program is successful and is grounded in three principles: 1) changing environments and policies; 2) consistent messaging across sectors–like “5-2-1-0”; and 3) approaches that use science and are recommended by the medical community.

Places as diverse as Kentucky and Hawaii are attempting to duplicate this program, despite apparently non-conclusive evidence of its efficacy.

Maine launched the program in response to the obesity epidemic (as of 2005, more than 60% of all adults in Maine reported being either overweight and 36% of kindergarten students, 26% of 6th-8th graders, and 29% of 9th-12th grade youth were reported being overweight or at-risk for overweight).

According to the program’s own evaluation of its efficacy tackling issues such as weight, the prevalence of overweight and obesity among children decreased from 33% in 2006 to just 31% in 2009 and was not statistically significant. However, among females, between 3 and 5 years, a smaller proportion were overweight and obese in 2009 compared to 2006 (25% vs. 31%). In short, this confirmed the findings from the BMJ study.

But what do you think?

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