A Circuitous Route to an Answer?

Every now and then, a headline floats by on the screen that poses an irresistible query. In this case, the question is, “Why don’t children with obesity benefit instantly from exercise?

Why is it seemingly so rare for a child to be able to exercise her or his way out of obesity? This is not meant to cast aspersions on the value of exercise in and of itself. Every system in the body benefits from motion. As filmmaker Maya Deren used to say, “Make it move to make it live.”

Prolific and diverse writer Ian Thomsen begins by relating how one of the country’s most excellent school districts (meaning, in the Top 40) prepares children for standardized academic tests. First, they are taken outside for a brisk walk, because studies have shown that exercise improves intellectual performance. Specifically, during the test itself, children become more adept at multitasking, retaining thoughts from one moment to the next, and ignoring distractions.

Well, most of them, anyway. Because, according to Prof. Charles Hillman of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, this increase in function does not extend to obese children:

Hillman’s research has found that children in general experience a jump in cognitive performance in the hour immediately following exercise. The exception to this rule is children with obesity… Among children ages 8 to 11, Hillman’s center found that those with a higher body mass index failed to realize a cognitive gain…

The thrust of the inquiry seems to be a suspicion that if researchers can decipher exactly what is going on in one area to cause such a noticeable benefit, perhaps that insight is transferrable to the more mysterious question of why, when the time comes to step on a scale, exercise alone does not seem to move the needle very much.

So far, the suspected culprit is visceral adipose tissue, which protects the internal organs and is very necessary… up to a point. Once that point is passed, however, visceral fat becomes a detriment. Figuring out how that mechanism works might provide insight that is applicable to the tougher questions.

Assistant Professor Lauren Raine, who holds a very long title at a very impressive institution, says,

We know that increased fat is related to increased inflammation… [Obese children] benefit greatly from a long-term approach to fitness. A sustained nine-month program of exercise resulted in greater-than-normal cognitive gains for children with obesity.

The scientists involved here seem to intuit that if an exercise program can be devised that benefits obese children cognitively, as much as it benefits normal-weight children, then whatever it is that causes the effect will extend to other areas of bodily health. If they find out what works in the short term, perhaps they can proceed to understand what will help most in the long run, to prevent and reverse obesity in young people.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Why Don’t Children with Obesity Benefit Instantly from Exercise?,” Northeastern.edu, 08/30/22
Image by Adam Bautz/CC BY 2.0

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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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