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Inactivity in Adolescent Girls Linked to Weight Gain

Breaking News - July 2005 - Week 3

(Jul 20, 2005)

Healthcare in  the News

-- Girls who were inactive during adolescence gained an average of 10 to 15 pounds more than active girls, according to a study reported in the medical journal The Lancet.

Picture of a young girl, swimming

Total calorie intake increased only slightly and was not associated with the weight gains, the report states.

Exercise Tapers as Girls Grow Older

These new results show that a previously reported steep decline in physical activity among adolescent girls is directly associated with increased fatness and an increase of body mass index (BMI), a measure of body weight adjusted for height.

The results of the Health and Growth Study, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), previously found that girls’ leisure-time physical activity declined between the ages of nine and 19 by an average of about seven brisk, 30-minute walks per week among all girls in the study.

At ages nine and 10, there were only small differences in BMI between girls who were evaluated as “active” (doing the equivalent of five or more brisk 30-minute walks per week) and those who were “inactive” (doing the equivalent of two and one-half or fewer brisk 30-minute walks per week).

However, in the subsequent nine years of follow-up, the differences widened, so that inactive girls had three times greater gains in BMI and were approximately 10 to15 pounds heavier in the tenth year of the study.

“These results show that many girls are at a literal standstill when it comes to exercise and physical activity in their pre-teen and teen years, says Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, director of the NHLBI.

"As parents, educators, and health care providers, we can do a lot to encourage girls to continue physical activity throughout their adolescence, a step that has been shown to help them maintain a healthy weight," she says.

The multi-center study of obesity development in 1,213 African-American and 1,166 Caucasian girls who were followed up annually from ages nine or 10 to ages 18 or 19 took place between 1987 and 1998 in San Francisco, Cincinnati, and the greater Washington, DC, area.

Differences were noted between the African-American and Caucasian participants in BMI, food intake, and activity levels.

Girls who self-reported their race as African American were consistently heavier than those who reported their race as Caucasian, their calorie intake was higher, and the calorie intake increased with age.

Thirty-two percent of Caucasian participants maintained “active” physical activity status, compared with 11 percent of African-American girls. Conversely, 58 percent of African-American girls remained “inactive” compared with 28 percent of Caucasian girls.

At each annual study visit, BMI was derived from measures of height and weight, and skinfold measurements were taken to evaluate total body fat.

Data on physical activity and diet were collected from questionnaires and a three-day food diary, recorded under the supervision of a nutritionist.

Study authors acknowledge that food intake is generally underreported, especially among Caucasian girls and women.

Dr. Sue Kimm, of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and the study’s lead author, theorized that “the phenomenon of under-reporting calories may have increased with the age of the girls and may account for some of the largely unchanged dietary patterns, especially among the white girls in the study.”

All Exercise Counts

Both African-American and Caucasian participants who maintained “inactive” status had 20 percent higher gains in BMI and an average of 20 percent to 40 percent increase in skinfold thickness - a measure of total body fat - than girls who maintained an “active” status.

“While 2.5 or more brisk walks per week is considered a modest level of activity, increasing exercise by that small amount could potentially prevent weight gain and serve as a goal for public health programs and schools,“ says Dr. Eva Obarzanek, an NHLBI research nutritionist.

“Just preventing the decline in physical activity that currently occurs among adolescent girls may be enough to prevent obesity,” she says.

The NHLBI has recently launched We Can! - Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition - a childhood obesity prevention program designed to encourage parents and children to adopt healthy eating habits, increase physical activity, and reduce leisure “screen time."

More than 35 communities across the country are integrating We Can! lessons into health programming for parents and kids.

Always consult your physician for more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Everyday Choices, ADA, AHA, and ACS


MyPyramid - USDA

National Children's Study

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

National Library of Medicine

National Women's Health Information Center


Office of Research on Women's Health

US Department of Agriculture (USDA)

We Can! - NHLBI

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this Web site.

Preventing Obesity

Obesity is a chronic disease affecting increasing numbers of children and adolescents as well as adults.

Obesity rates among children in the US have doubled since 1980 and have tripled for adolescents. Fifteen percent of children aged six to 19 are considered overweight compared to over 60 percent of adults who are considered overweight or obese.

Earlier onset of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity-related depression in children and adolescents is being seen by healthcare professionals.

The longer a person is obese, the more significant obesity-related risk factors become. Given the chronic diseases and conditions associated with obesity and the fact that obesity is difficult to treat, prevention is extremely important.

A primary reason that prevention of obesity is so vital in children is because the likelihood of childhood obesity persisting into adulthood is thought to increase from about 20 percent at four years of age to 80 percent by adolescence.

Breastfed babies are 15 percent to 25 percent less likely to become overweight, and those who are breastfed for six months or longer are 20 percent to 40 percent less likely to become overweight. Therefore, the longer babies are breastfed, the less likely they are to become overweight as they grow older.

Children and adolescents:
Young people generally become overweight or obese because they do not get enough physical activity in combination with poor eating habits. Genetics and lifestyle also contribute to a child’s weight status.

Recommendations for prevention of overweight and obesity during childhood and adolescence include:

  • Gradually work to change family eating habits and activity levels rather than focusing on a child’s weight.
  • Be a role model. Parents who eat healthy foods and participate in physical activity set an example so that a child is more likely to do the same.
  • Encourage physical activity. Children should have 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. More than 60 minutes of activity may promote weight loss and subsequent maintenance.
  • Reduce “screen” time in front of the television and computer to less than two hours daily.
  • Encourage children to eat when hungry and to eat slowly.
  • Avoid using food as a reward or withholding food as a punishment.
  • Keep the refrigerator stocked with fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruit, and vegetables instead of soft drinks and snacks high in sugar and fat.
  • Serve at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Encourage children to drink water rather than beverages with added sugar, such as soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit juice drinks.

Many of the strategies that produce successful weight loss and maintenance help prevent obesity. Improving eating habits and increasing physical activity play a vital role in preventing obesity.

Recommendations for adults include:

  • Eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. A vegetable serving is one cup of raw vegetables or one-half cup of cooked vegetables or vegetable juice. A fruit serving is one piece of small to medium fresh fruit, one-half cup of canned or fresh fruit or fruit juice, or one-fourth cup of dried fruit.
  • Choose whole grain foods such as brown rice and whole wheat bread. Avoid highly processed foods made with refined white sugar, flour, and saturated fat.
  • Weigh and measure food in order to be able to gain an understanding of portion sizes. For example, a 3-ounce serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards. Avoid supersized menu items.
  • Balance the food “checkbook.” Taking in more calories than are expended for energy will result in weight gain. Regularly monitor weight.
  • Avoid foods that are high in “energy density,” or that have a lot of calories in a small amount of food. For example, a large cheeseburger with a large order of fries may have almost 1,000 calories and 30 or more grams of fat. By ordering a grilled chicken sandwich or a plain hamburger and a small salad with low-fat dressing, you can avoid hundreds of calories and eliminate much of the fat intake. For dessert, have fruit or a piece of angel food cake.
  • Accumulate at least 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity activity on most, or preferably all, days of the week. Examples of moderate intensity exercise are walking a 15-minute mile, or weeding and hoeing a garden.
  • Look for opportunities during the day to perform even ten or 15 minutes of some type of activity, such as walking around the block or up and down a few flights of stairs.

Always consult your physician for more information.

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