AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Forcing children to exercise during school will do little to tackle childhood obesity, researchers told a conference on Friday.
Their study presented at the European Congress on Obesity suggests that, as with appetite, there may be some form of central control in the brain that controls exercise, they said.
This has implications for policy-makers considering how to tackle childhood obesity because simply scheduling more physical education may not do the trick, Alissa Fremeaux, of Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in Britain said.
“We believe that there is a set point somewhere in the brain that controls physical activity,” she said in an interview. “You might want to try to force a kid to be more active, but if there is a set point then it might be difficult to try and change that.”
About 177 million children and teenagers under 18 years old worldwide are clinically overweight or obese, including 22 million children under five years old who are overweight, according to the International Obesity Task Force.
Unhealthy lifestyles including high-calorie diets, dwindling exercise and hours spent in front of the television or computer have contributed to the surge in childhood obesity.
Many governments, looking to ease the burden on national health systems, have looked towards providing children with physical education time during school.
But if the brain controls how much exercise children will do, then perhaps officials should switch the focus to diet as they try to tackle childhood obesity, Fremeaux added.
“The results suggest that the obesity epidemic might not be due to inactivity or lack of activity but that its more a diet issue, or a food habits issue,” she said.
The researchers studied 206 children aged 7 to 11 years attending three primary schools with widely different amounts of scheduled physical education.
Children at one school had on average 9.2 hours per week while those at the second got 2.4 hours and the boys and girls at the third had just 1.7 hours of weekly scheduled exercise.
The researchers then had the children wear gadgets that recorded time, duration and intensity of activity all day, every day for a week in four consecutive terms to measure the amount of exercise in and out of school.
The children with the most scheduled physical education time showed 40 percent more activity in school, a gap that the other boys and girls closed during the evenings and weekends.
“We believe the range of activity among children, from the slothful to the hyperactive, reflects not the range in environmental opportunities, but the range of individual activity set-points in the brains of children,” Fremeaux said.
Reporting by Elke Bun, Writing by Michael Kahn
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