Summer — a Childhood Obesity Villain?

child playing in public fountain

Childhood Obesity News takes a break from examining the case against vending machines in schools, to look at a report that brings up a basic question: Why does summer vacation even exist? Writer Paul Jury says the three-month hiatus “came about through a combination of fiscal limitations, hundred-year-old developmental theories and antiquated medical concerns that kids somehow couldn’t hold up under year-round teaching.”

Jury rejects the idea that summer vacation is a holdover from the days when most families lived on farms, because the times when a farm really needs the kids home to help with the crops are spring (planting) and fall (harvesting.) He also suggests breaking up the vacation: “Take the hottest month of summer off to save AC costs, and take the coldest month of winter off to save on heating.” Worth thinking about, perhaps, but what does any of this have to do with childhood obesity? Plenty, as it turns out.

Many of us have a fond mental picture of summer as the time when children are constantly active, getting fantastic amounts of exercise and burning off tons of calories. Somehow we manage to hold on to this fantasy despite the contrary evidence in front of our eyes, with kids sitting around and doing pretty much what they do in the cold months.

Perhaps because it is so counterintuitive, the notion that summer is bad for overweight kids has not gained much traction or even attention. It was put forward several years ago by statistician Paul von Hippel, Ph.D. (then of Ohio State University and now of the University of Texas). His team looked at the records of 5,000 kids, in 300 schools, and found a striking correlation between summer and childhood weight gain:

In fact, children gain weight three times faster during the summer months, gaining as much weight during the summer as they do during the entire school year, even though the summertime is three times shorter.

It has been established that black and Latino children are even more at risk for obesity than their white peers, so one implication of the study is that summer vacation is especially harmful to minority kids who may be dealing with disadvantages already.

Von Hippel, who now holds the title Assistant Professor of Public Affairs, asks us to rethink the relationship between school and obesity:

For years, the public debate over childhood obesity has focused on what schools are doing wrong, and how we can fix them…. Children would weigh a lot more if it weren’t for the time that they spend in school…. Schools provide a structured environment where children are constantly supervised, have limited opportunities to eat, and get physical exercise at least a few times a week.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “5 Bad Ideas Humanity Is Sticking With Out of Habit,” Cracked.com, 04/21/11
Source: “Summertime and Weight Gain,” uwex.edu
Image by David Robert Bliwas

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