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Brian Powell
Department of Sociology

Tracy James
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Children maintain healthier weight in school compared to summer breaks

Feb. 28, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The nation's schools often are blamed for the growing numbers of overweight youth, but a national study by sociologists at Indiana University and Ohio State University found that young children actually got fatter during their summer breaks than while in school.

"Schools have been getting a bad rap," said IU Bloomington Professor Brian Powell. "This isn't to say that schools can't improve -- but we found that kids' weight gain is more under control during the school year than during summer break. This suggests that instead of thinking of schools as the problem, schools appear to be part of the solution."

The study, appearing in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health, was co-authored with Powell by OSU sociologists Paul T. von Hippel and Douglas B. Downey, and Nicholas J. Rowland, a doctoral student in IU's Department of Sociology.

The researchers examined the BMI growth rates of 5,380 kindergartners and first graders using the National Center for Education Statistics Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort. BMI is calculated using a person's weight and height and provides a reliable indicator of body fatness for most people. Higher numbers often mean higher proportions of body fat. The BMIs of children in the study increased on average more than twice as much during summer breaks, with Hispanic and African-American students seeing even larger increases. This gap in the growth rate of Hispanic and African-American students' BMIs did not exist during the school year.

The study's results led researchers to conclude that school diet and exercise policies contribute less to childhood obesity than what children do outside of school. The data do not point to the cause of the BMI acceleration over summer break, but the authors wrote they "conjecture" that the school day is more structured, with less opportunity for snacking, than the time students spend out of school. They suggested that school-based interventions aimed at helping kids learn healthy habits should "target children's behavior not only during the school hours, but also, and most importantly, after the bell rings."

The authors note that obesity among children ages 6 to 11 has tripled in the last 20 years to 15 percent. They cited earlier studies that say 5- and 6-year-olds with above average BMI and BMI gains are at increased risk for adult obesity.

"If we think of schools as a potential solution, we should pay more attention to school policies," Powell said. "When I read about school budgets being cut, resulting in cuts in physical education or after school programs, I now think, 'What will happen in terms of children's weight?'"

For a copy of the journal article, contact the American Public Health Association's Olivia Chang at or 202-777-2511. The April issue of the American Journal of Public Health became available online on Feb. 28. The American Journal of Public Health is the monthly journal of the American Public Health Association, the oldest organization of public health professionals in the world.

The research was supported by the Spencer Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the American Educational Research Association.

Powell can be reached at 812-855-7624 and

"Changes in children's body mass index during the school year and during summer vacation," American Journal of Public Health, vol. 97, no. 4.