Physical exercise has little impact on obesity in young children

Movement and Activity Glasgow Intervention in Children (MAGIC) for the prevention of obesity: Cluster randomised controlled trial BMJ Online First

Physical activity is unlikely to have a significant effect in reducing levels of obesity amongst pre-school children, but could lay the foundations for a healthier future, a BMJ study reveals today.

Childhood obesity has become an increasing problem over recent years (1), yet there is a lack of high quality evidence on the issue, and how it can best be tackled. A team of researchers from Glasgow undertook a large study – involving 545 pre-school children from 36 nurseries – to ascertain whether or not an increase in levels of exercise could reduce a child's Body Mass Index (BMI).

The participating children (average age of 4.2 years) took part in a nursery based active play programme consisting of three sessions of 30 minutes each week. In addition their parents were given guidance on increasing physical play at home. BMI readings for each child were taken after six months and then again after a year, they were also assessed for movement skills and 'habitual physical activity and sedentary behaviour' – i.e. whether or not the increased activity led to a reduction in sedentary behaviour and/or an increase in physical activity.

The researchers found that the increased level of exercise had little effect on the BMI or on the activity behaviours of the children. However, it did help to improve the children's motor and movement skills. The researchers say that this improvement may foster an increase in activity levels by increasing the confidence and ability of children to carry out physical activity, which could affect long-term levels of body fat.

The authors conclude that to prevent obesity in early childhood may require change not just at nursery school and home, but also in the 'wider environment', and that changes in diet are also necessary. They call for further research into the issue 'to identify successful and sustainable interventions for obesity prevention and physical activity promotion in young children'.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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