What if the real answer to the childhood obesity epidemic isn’t just diet and exercise? Two research studies done years and an ocean apart suggest that three family routines -- setting limits on TV, having family meals together and getting the kids to bed on time – could reduce kids’ risk for obesity by 40%, while food choices and exercise alone have proven less successful.
The two studies show that routines make a difference. In the United Kingdom, a long-running study of over 14,000 school children found in 2005 that 17 variables – including food and breast-feeding as babies – didn’t seem connected with which kids became overweight. What was: The amount of sleep kids got each night, the amount of TV they watched, and whether their parents were obese.
In the US the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of about 8000 children is getting similar results. When researchers looked at the household routines of a group of 4-year-olds from the study, they found three variables that were related to obesity. Obesity rates were much lower in families that simply set an average 2-hour limit on TV and other ‘screen time’, had meals together at least five nights a week and got kids to bed early enough that they slept an average of 10 ½ hours per night (a healthy sleep number for 4-year-olds). Just 14% of kids whose families practiced all three routines were obese, compared to 24% of kids whose families didn’t follow any of them.
To be sure, food and exercise are still important part. What the research is telling us is that without consistent healthy routines at home and warm supportive parents who can set limits as needed, that information on food and exercise is not going to help.