Kids Gain Weight in the Summer

It probably shouldn't come as a shock that as Canadians continue to gain weight, kids' waistlines are expanding, too. According to the most recent national health survey, a staggering 26 per cent of Canadian children between the ages of two and 17 are overweight.

Kids Gain Weight in the Summer

It probably shouldn't come as a shock that as Canadians continue to gain weight, kids' waistlines are expanding, too. According to the most recent national health survey, a staggering 26 per cent of Canadian children between the ages of two and 17 are overweight. Eight per cent are obese - a figure that's tripled in the past 25 years. But while schools across the country have come under attack for cafeterias laden with deep-fried food, vending machines chock full of pop and cutbacks in physical education, a new study suggests kids' behaviours away from school may be more to blame than previously thought.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, examined the body mass indexes (BMIs) of children from across the United States, measured at the start and end of the school year. (BMI is your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared.) The analysis, which looked at children in kindergarten and first grade, found the students' BMIs grew at a faster rate during summer than during the school year.

It's a sobering trend that extends north of the border, says Tom Warshawski, head of pediatrics at Kelowna General Hospital in British Columbia and chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation. As a physician who deals with overweight kids and their parents on a daily basis, he says he often sees kids gain more weight in the summer. "The parents seem to be baffled because [their kids] are going swimming and at the beach all day," he says. The problem is that parents overcompensate for the exercise and let their kids overeat. "We really don't understand the math," he says. "For instance, 500 ml of a soft drink contains 260 calories. A 13-year-old boy has to actively jog for 50 minutes to burn that off." During school, kids don't have the same kind of constant access to junk food and junk drinks. "In many ways, the school environment is pretty good," he says. And the extra time spent watching TV, playing video games and sitting in front of the computer during summer break doesn't help, either. Although kids sit through most of the day when in school, Warshawski says studies have shown they burn more calories reading or talking than they do watching TV.

The study itself doesn't try to explain the findings, says Paul von Hippel, a researcher at Ohio State University and one of the paper's authors. It could have to do with children snacking less or being more active during the school year, or a combination of the two. Whatever the reasons, von Hippel says, the message is clear. "We need to think of this more as a public health education issue. The trick is to get children and parents to change their behaviour when school is out."

But as Ottawa resident Susan Read knows, that trick can be a hard one to master. Having struggled with a lifelong weight problem herself, Read, 45, tried to teach her overweight daughter Mandy about proper nutrition and the value of exercise. Despite her best efforts, it was always "in one ear and out the other." So when she heard about a new camp for overweight teenaged girls, Read hoped a more structured summer environment might encourage her daughter to change. Last year, Mandy spent the month of August at the Active Challenge camp, about 100 km northwest of Ottawa, where she ate healthy meals, participated in daily activities like canoeing and rafting, and learned about nutrition and fitness. "Having people there to support you was just amazing," the 15-year-old says. Mandy lost 20 lb. and gained some habits that have become part of her lifestyle. Instead of instant messaging her friends, she now rides her bike to their houses. She also checks food labels and makes healthier choices when eating out. "I think it just sunk in more at the camp because it was every single day for a whole month," she says. "When you hear it at school it's kind of like, 'Yeah, yeah, okay.' "

That schools could do an even better job promoting a healthy lifestyle - even if they aren't actively causing kids to gain weight - doesn't come as a surprise to Mark Tremblay, director of healthy living and obesity research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and chair of Active Healthy Kids Canada. "I think we're nowhere near the level of intervention that we need in the schools," he says. "There will always be less-than-perfect parents out there. Something as fundamental as the basic laws of health need to be transferred to kids, and for some, the only chance for that will be in the school."

But while education is the first step, Warshawski stresses that it's a tool that has to be put to use by both parents and kids - especially during summer break, when an unstructured day makes it easy for kids to be lazy and overeat. "We can't look to the institutions," he says. "They can help us, but it's ultimately what happens in the home environment which is the key."

Maclean's September 3, 2007