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Study: The Younger, the Better for Anti-Obesity Programs

Children ages 2 to 5 respond nearly seven times better to anti-obesity programs than students ages 6 to 21, according to a new study.

The study, being presented this week at the Digestive Disease Week meeting, was led by researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine. It focused on 462 children, 44 of whom were between the ages of 2 and 5, and found that obese children who participated in a yearlong behavioral intervention program were much more likely to change their eating and exercise habits.

The program issued families pedometers and journals to track the kids' exercise and eating patterns. Carl Sather, a co-author of the study, noted to the Wall Street Journal Health Blog that older kids can track their activity and eating on their own, but "at a younger age, they're dependent on adults to monitor them."

The findings may reflect the importance of close parental involvement in reducing childhood obesity and encouraging healthy habits. Young children depend far more heavily on their parents for their food choices than older children, so parents who keep junk food out of a young child's diet can effectively change that child's eating habits before he/she begins making food choices on his/her own.

"Our biggest encouragement for younger kids is really to increase the time [they spend] playing," Sather told the WSJ. He recommended that children "play hard daily for 60 minutes or more, with no more than two hours of screen time." (Do those suggestions sound familiar? You could be thinking of the 5-2-1-0 Let's Go! program, which also calls for children to have two hours or less of screen time, one hour or more of exercise, zero sugary drinks, and five or more fruits and vegetables each day.)

The authors concluded that the results of their study suggest screening body mass index for preschoolers and kindergartners, given how much more they responded to anti-obesity programs. Full data for the study aren't yet available, according to the WSJ, and it's unclear whether the program tracks the eating and exercise habits of the children after they complete the yearlong program.

This new study isn't the first to conclude that obesity prevention programs work best for younger children. Just last year, the WSJ wrote about a study, presented at an obesity conference in Sweden, that suggested obesity prevention programs work much more effectively with kids under 5. The younger kids were "much more susceptible to change," according to the study.

Why should parents push their children to shed those extra pounds, besides the clear health benefits? (Youth obesity was recently linked to severely higher rates of heart disease, no matter the person's adult weight.)

Well, a recent study of 1,725 5th and 7th graders out of West Virginia found that students with better aerobic fitness tended to score higher on standardized tests. And this blog discussed a study from February that found exercise increases the cognitive function of overweight children.

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