For those who believe the youth-obesity epidemic won’t have long-term implications, think again.
A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that overweight teens were nearly seven times more likely than in-shape teens to get heart disease in their mid-30s, regardless of their adult weight, according to Health.com.
The study found that “an elevated BMI [body mass index] in adolescence—one that is well within the range currently considered to be normal—constitutes a substantial risk factor for obesity-related disorders in midlife.” BMI is a rough estimate of body fat based on height and weight (see a BMI calculator here), and a normal BMI falls between 18.5 and 24.9. (This blog author appears to be in the danger zone, with a BMI of 23.7.)
Worse yet, damage done to the arteries, which often characterizes heart disease, is “gradual and difficult to reverse, even with weight loss,” according to the study.
On the bright side, adolescent obesity didn’t appear to be nearly as predictive for type 2 diabetes as it is for heart disease. The study found the risk of diabetes to be linked to increased BMI close to the time of diagnosis, meaning that obese adolescents can decrease their chance of developing the disease by improving their diet and exercising as they enter adulthood. That said, the study does find elevated adolescent BMI to be a predictor of diabetes as well.
Daniel Marks, M.D., told Health.com that being overweight isn’t the sole cause for heart disease or diabetes—nutrition and exercise have a “much greater impact.” Marks called BMI a “proxy marker for poor lifestyle choices,” adding that two people with similar BMIs could have very different risk levels if one exercised regularly and one didn’t.
The study followed more than 37,000 “apparently healthy” Israeli soldiers who were drafted at age 17, and tracked their height and weight in regular intervals for roughly 17 years.
Given these findings—that nutrition and exercise have a much greater impact on the risks of diabetes and heart disease—schools might want to think twice before cutting phys. ed., sports, and recess, wouldn’t you think?
A group called Raise Your Hand is trying to persuade the Chicago district to do exactly that. Last week, Raise Your Hand gathered representatives from 35 Chicago elementary schools to urge them to reinstate recess in their schools, according to the Chicago Tribune. The group cited concerns about a lack of recess and physical activity contributing to childhood obesity.
Hawaiian health officials also launched a program targeting childhood obesity this week, recommending that children get the following on a daily basis: five fruits, roots, and vegetables; two hours or less of TV or computer time; at least an hour of physical activity, and zero or almost no sugary drinks.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.