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TV or Not TV? Try This One at Home

When channeled to exercise, kids watch less

TUESDAY, May 8 (HealthScout) -- Want to pry your fat 10-year-old away from the television and burn the lard off him at the same time? Just hook the TV up so that he has to pedal a bike to turn it on and keep it on, says a new study.

Obese children watched much less TV when they had to exercise to see their shows; they also lost much more fat than kids who were allowed to watch TV freely, the study found.

The study's 10 children had each watched an average of slightly more than 20 hours of television a week when the study began. But for the five could only watch while riding a stationary bike, their viewing time dropped to an average of about 90 minutes a week. In addition, the bicyclists exercised a bit more and reduced their body fat percentages.

"We understand the national problem of obesity isn't going to be eradicated by TV bikes; it's more the idea that environment can have a strong and powerful influence if it's systematically changed," says the study's lead author, Myles S. Faith, an associate research scientist at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. "Parents of overweight children should be aware that the environment they create can have a strong impact on behavior."

The percentage of overweight and obese children has risen in recent years: about 21 percent of Hispanic, 18 percent of black, and 15 percent of white children currently are obese. A number of studies have linked this rise in obesity to an increase in watching television, which, in turn, is associated with less physical activity and more eating.

Children are considered obese if their Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) are above the 95th percentile for their age. BMIs are ratios based on height and weight. For instance, a child who is 5 feet tall and weighs 155 pounds would be obese.

The study divided the children, who were about 10 years old, into two groups. For 10 weeks, half the children could only watch television when they were pedaling the bike at a "moderately intense" level; the other half could watch TV when they wanted though a stationary bike was in the room, as well. On average, the kids with the so-called "TV bikes" watched only 1.6 hours of television a week, compared with the 21 hours a week watched by the unrestricted kids. And where the children with TV bikes pedaled an average 50.5 minutes a week through the study's 10 weeks, those with regular stationary bikes started out strong the first week, with 53 minutes, but ended up pedaling an average of a little more than one minute in the last weeks of the study.

"It's the age-old situation -- you put the bike out, you pedal a little while, and then you put it in the closet and use it for a coat hanger," Faith says.

Researchers aren't sure whether the exercise was the only factor, but the BMIs of the children with TV bikes dropped from an average 30.2 to 29.9, while in the control group, the BMIs rose, from 26 to 27. Total percentage of body fat in the TV bike group dropped from 44.5 to 43.3 percent, while the percentage of fat in the control group rose from 37.1 to 38 percent, Faith says.

The study admittedly didn't cover all the bases. The children may have been physically active when they weren't watching television, and the researchers said they didn't really know what the kids were doing with their extra time.

Increasing activity and decreasing sedentary activity are critical when you're fighting obesity, says Dr. Stephen Daniels, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Children's Hospital Medical Center.

"Television watching is one of the big sinks of sedentary time. It's a big activity, but there's no activity in it, and what's worse, it's often associated with eating," Daniels says.

But Faith's "contingency television" idea could backfire, he adds, because it continues to establish strong television viewing habits in kids.

"We try to offer creative rewards that aim kids in the right direction," Daniels says. For example, most kids would put spending time with a parent at the top of a wish list; pairing that with a physical habit creates all kinds of healthy patterns for both parent and child, he notes.

But the study does point to another useful fact, Daniels adds. When you make television watching too costly to kids, kids will choose not to watch.

"Kids may see TV watching as an inalienable right and something they can't do without, but, in fact, without it they seem to do just fine," he says.

What To Do

One constructive use of television might be what Faith calls "contingency television." Parents can balance kids' lives more by offering television rewards in exchange for taking part in physical activity, he says.

For more on children and obesity, try KidSource. You can also try the American Dietetic Association for tips on healthy eating, including "Fat Facts for Tots" and "Healthful, No-Cook Snacks for Kids."

You can read more about children and obesity, including recent stories about how drinking too much soda can add weight to kids, at HealthScout.

SOURCES: Interviews with Myles S. Faith, Ph.D., associate research scientist, the Obesity Research Center, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, N.Y.; Stephen Daniels, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio; May 2001 Pediatrics
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