A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The English poet Alexander Pope coined this phrase, and several new studies remind us of its applicability to weight management.
For example, most parents of overweight kids think the best (and perhaps only) way to boost their child’s level of activity is to schedule activities. But a new study by University of Exeter researchers published in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity demonstrates this may not be the best way to increase activity. The study focused on the type and extent of activities of boys between the ages of 8-10 and found that less than 15% of boys achieved five bouts of moderate intensity activity lasting five minutes and very few managed to achieve one bout of vigorous intensity activity lasting five minutes. The findings suggest that schools, parents and policy-makers should focus their efforts on encouraging young children to walk or move around as they do naturally, rather than scheduling activity.
Lead researcher Michelle Stone, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, said: “Our study suggests that physical activity is associated with health, irrespective of whether it is accumulated in short bursts or long bouts. Previous research has shown that children are more naturally inclined to engage in short bursts of running, jumping and playing with a ball, and do not tend to sustain bouts of exercise lasting five or more minutes. This is especially true for activities that are more vigorous in nature.”
Another commonly held belief is that frequent self-weighing (literally, standing on a scale) is not helpful for adolescents, as it can be demoralizing and even lead to eating disorders. But a new study of 130 overweight teens by University of California San Diego researchers, led by Dr. Kerri Boutelle, demonstrates that frequent weighing is often critical for weight control.
The study found that overweight teens who self-weigh at least weekly were 4x as likely to report engaging in healthy weight-control behaviors. They also reported a lower daily calorie intake, less junk food consumption and an overall healthier diet. “We think that regular weight monitoring may increase a teen’s awareness of weight fluctuations or gradual weight gain, enabling him or her to appropriately adjust their diet and exercise,” said Dr. Boutelle. “It’s a process called self-regulation, which is not about the weight; it’s about paying attention.”
Another common approach that many parents of overweight children take is to try to make a single change. For example, we’ve heard from dozens of families who have made an effort to equip their child with a pedometer, or who have advocated for more time in physical education with their child’s school administrators.
It turns out that neither approach leads to significant improvements in activity levels.. A New Zealand study of teens found that providing pedometers over a 12-year period and sending motivational text messages to encourage them to get more steps was not effective in producing a higher level of activity; at the end of the 12-year student, the intervention group was not significantly more active than the control group.
Similarly, extending gym class time at school is not likely to be successful. A study from the Netherlands suggests that children who are more active during school hours are less active after school. Conversely, children who are less active in school are more active after the final bell rings.
In the end, a child will expend the same amount of energy, whether in school or out, suggesting that his level of activity is set by some kind of internal meter in the brain, said the lead researcher, Dr. Terry Wilkin, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Peninsula Medical School in the British city of Plymouth. The conclusion, said Wilkin, was that children who are forced to do more activity will slip back to their old habits quickly.
At Wellspring, we know that making a single change is unlikely to be effective for long-term weight control. Obesity is such a complex problem – combining biology, environment, and behavior – that no single step or change alone is likely to be effective. And as we’ve seen, it’s often difficult for conventional wisdom to accurately reflect on complexity.