Everything You Know About Summer Is Wrong

Okay, maybe not everything. But many people still cherish the myth that for children, summer is invariably a time of intense activity and fitness. Some retain memories of their own youthful days, spending the hot months doing hard physical work every day, on a family farm or in some other type of job.

For many wonderful years, Americans basked in the idea that the season is filled with hiking, swimming, and other physically challenging activities. In theory, and often in reality, high school and college athletes make good use of the summer by getting in shape for fall training and games. Many children have enjoyed these benefits, and many still do.

There was a time when a family could bicycle across the country, but probably few would try it now. The world keeps on changing. In recent years, fewer families own getaway cabins on lake shores or in woods. A lot of parents can’t afford to send their kids to camp. But even those who can manage a special camp might be disappointed. Michael Prager, who wrote Fat Boy Thin Man, shattered illusions by admitting that despite three summers at fat camp, going back to school meant regaining whatever weight he had lost.

Physical activity epidemiologist Dr. Lara R. Dugas, who teaches at Loyola University, learned that “Many children finish the school year in June fitter and leaner than when they go back to school in August.” The difference is only a couple of BMI percentage points, but the observation does call to mind the theory that constant weight fluctuation subjects the body to a lot of wear and tear.

The yearly up-and-down of children’s weights could be meaningful, and even indicative of larger issues in need of fixing. Why does it happen? Could the standard school year be the problem? Some experts think not, because the schedule has remained pretty much the same for decades. True, more kids used to walk to and from school, but they still have outdoor recess, and sports, and so on.

Some suggest that school is better for kids because they only eat at designated times, and can’t snack constantly. (The corollary to that is, in the summer they supposedly are free to graze on junk food all day long.) The combination of an unstructured schedule and “unlimited access to food” is seen as destructive.

However… The assumption that school schedules inhibit snacking might be overly optimistic. As rumor has it, one way or another, plenty of snacking goes on in schools. Also, just because school is out, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all kids everywhere are drowning oceans of food.

The obesity epidemic is more than an equal opportunity affliction. Sadly, it practices reverse discrimination. Dr. Dugas’s research showed that summer weight gain shows up more among low-income girls from minority groups.

Strangely, the study of 6,453 children and adolescents done by the Mailman School of Public Health did not seem to bear this out. Although it found that lower-income teen girls exercise less during the summer than their higher-income counterparts, the press release quotes Dr. Claire Wang as saying:

Although obesity-promoting behaviors are generally more common during the summer break, the differences in obesity behaviors between income groups were not exacerbated during the summer break.

Despite uncertainty over whether the school schedule is a genuine obesity villain, Dr. Dugas has a suggestion, spelled out by journalist Stephanie Viguers:

Another potential solution is the implementation of a quarter system, which would substitute 12 weeks of summer vacation with 6 to 8 weeks of vacation as well as a 2- to 3-week break every 3 months.

If nothing else, perhaps some good could be accomplished by a more equitable redistribution of the relative demands and perils of the school year versus vacation. But the public school schedule affects many other sectors of society, from the way businesses are run, to the summer programs and youth missions sponsored by churches. A redesigned school year would probably be a difficult concept to sell.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Childhood obesity increases during summer break,” Healio.com, 07/29/15
Source: “Obesity-related behaviors increase when school’s out,” EurekAlert.org, 07/14/15
Photo credit: Lotzman Katzman via Visualhunt/CC BY

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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