Budding Couch Potatoes

AuthorJenifer Joseph
DateMarch 2001
Copyright Copyright (C) 2001 ABC News
  • variables
  • relative frequencies/associations
  • causal graphs
  • confouders
  • television
  • obesity

Much to the delight of the television industry, many of us are addicted to TV--and our addiction starts early. By the time U.S. kids reach senior high school, they've spent on average of three years of their waking lives in front of the tube.
So it may come as no surprise that Johns Hopkins University researchers are pointing the finger squarely at TV as the primary cause of obesity in American youngsters, especially in girls and minority children.
In a study published March 25 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they report that teenage girls and black and Hispanic kids of both genders watch more TV than their white, male peers, and they're also heavier.
"There's no question that these kids are not out burning calories," says obesity researcher Ross Andersen, lead author of the study.
He and his colleagues compared the TV-watching habits of 4,063 children between 8- and 16-years-old with their physical activity levels and body-fat measurements.
Regardless of race or ethnicity, those who watched four or more hours of TV each day had a greater proportion of body fat than kids who watched two hours or less. And girls in the study became far less active as they reached their mid-teen years.
Kids who watch more TV each day have higher levels of body fat (determined by skin thickness in millimeters). (ABCNEWS.com)
Is the Tube to Blame?
These findings lead Andersen to believe there's a cause-and-effect relationship between TV viewing and body-fat levels. But Stanford University's Dr. Thomas Robinson doubts that conclusion. In the accompanying JAMA editorial, Robinson notes that for TV viewing to be a true risk factor for childhood obesity, studies would have to show that an increased amount of TV viewing did in fact precede the weight gain.
"The jury is still out on the question of whether television viewing is an important cause of overweight among children," he writes.
Andersen agrees that TV may not be the only cause of obesity in children, but he also thinks the correlation is too strong to ignore.
"I'm not here to can TV," says the obesity expert, who admits to having watched the same dumb after-school programs as everyone else. "But we've got to look at what families need to do differently to stop obesity."
In his editorial, Robinson backs up that view, writing that even though all the facts aren't in on a TV-obesity link, "that should not stop parents and children from substituting less sedentary activities for sitting in front of the television."
Play Safety Issues
The new study raises other questions too: Why do levels of activity, obesity and TV-watching break down along racial and gender lines? And why is it that black children watch the most TV--43 percent view four hours or more per day--followed by Hispanic children at 33 percent?
One theory is that parents of urban minority kids tend to worry about neighborhood safety, so they instruct children to stay inside after school rather than letting them play outdoors. Andersen points to recent research in which minority parents were found to be twice as likely as white moms and dads to say their neighborhoods were unsafe.
Another problem stems from the budget-cutting that has hit kids' recreational sports programs in recent years. In Detroit, for example, less than 10 percent of disadvantaged urban youth were involved in government-funded sports programs in 1994. The city's budget for recreational services that year was less than half what it was in 1968, according to a Carnegie study on sports and kids.
Each of these factors probably has some effect on the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of U.S. kids. But whatever the causes may be, notes Andersen, "It's up to parents and teachers to give kids the tools they'll need in their youth so they'll continue to be active when they're adults."
How One Mother Got Her Child Back in Shape
When it comes down to it, it's up to parents to make sure their kids get healthy amounts of physical activity--even if that means cracking down on TV-viewing habits.
Cathey Ryan, the general manager of Weight Watchers of Greater Washington, decided on three household rules when her son Matt complained he was overweight: daily exercise; no second helpings at dinner, and no junk food.
Ryan also took the drastic step of removing the television out of her son's room and limiting him to six hours of TV each week. "The TV went on when he woke up in the morning," she recalls, "and it stayed on all day after school, even when he was doing his homework. Now, he's heavily into drama at school, and he's 6 feet and 125 pounds."
Ryan, who works out every day herself, says kids follow by example. "Parents can't help change their child's detrimental behaviors," she says, "if they don't help themselves first."