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Stress and Childhood Obesity

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If you have a child between the ages of 7-13 that experiences rapid weight gain, the reason may well be stress.

I have always maintained that obesity is never a problem; it is only the result of a problem. Until that underlying problem is addressed, whether it is boredom, poor self image, or too much stress, all the diets in the world are not going to work in the long term.

An image depicting a child fighting childhood obesity with exercise

Now a new multi-center European study, headed by Drs. Melbin and Vuille and reported in the Scandinavian Pediatric Journal, has come to the same conclusion. They examined close to a thousand children, and followed them from birth to age 15 years. All children who gained more than fifteen percent in relative weight were analyzed according to age groups. Their psychosocial stress was evaluated according to scholastic health records and school nurses' information, and rated 0 (for no stress), 1, or 2. Between the ages of 7 to 13, the students with the highest stress scores turned out to be the ones most likely to be obese.

In addition, the high levels of stress were manifested in other ways. For example, among the seventy overweight children in the study, they were almost five times as likely to drop out of school beyond the nine year mandatory period. When the stress levels were low, almost half of these overweight children lost weight between the ages of 13 and 15, but when stress was high, only 15 % achieved normal body weights in later adolescence. So the authors concluded that rapid weight gain during the school years may be an indicator of psychosocial problems and the ramifications are obvious. Just signing such a child up for an expensive diet program, or subscribing to radical liquid diets will only work for a very short period of time, if at all. If the stresses are not addressed and dealt with, the obesity will soon return.

The American Heart Association has taken a position on this subject based on scientific evidence:  physical inactivity is a major risk factor for developing coronary artery disease. Inactivity also increases the risk of stroke and such other major cardiovascular risk factors as obesity, high blood pressure, low HDL ("good") cholesterol and diabetes.

The American Heart Association recommends that children and adolescents participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

Here's an action tip:

If you have a child that has suddenly gained a lot of weight, make sure you don’t just shut down the food lines, but open up the lines of communication. Resolve these stresses by working together and, where appropriate, involve professional help. You will do a lot more to cure the obesity if you listen to the child.

How do I promote physical activity in my child?

  • Reduce the time your child watches TV, talks on the phone, plays computer games or any other activity that does not require vigorous physical activity.
  • Make sure that any physical activity is enjoyable and rewarding - it will help reinforce the idea that exercise is fun and something to be looked forward to, not avoided.
  • Be a role model! If you are active and encourage your child to also be active there's a good chance they'll make exercise a habit!

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