Researchers led by Peymane Adab at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health research closely monitored the impact of a healthy lifestyle and eating program on the body mass index of about 1,400 children aged 6 to 7 years old and, to their chagrin, found no significant change on the children’s body mass index.
The West Midlands ActiVe lifestyle and healthy Eating in school children, or WAVES, program included additional daily physical activity, healthy eating education, cooking lessons for extended family and other opportunities to work with local sports heroes with the goal of reducing the obesity levels among the children after 15 and 30 month intervals.
While the program earned praise from teachers, parents and students alike who reported it was “fantastic” and made children more willing to try new fruits and vegetables, it ultimately did not deliver a significant difference in BMI between the control and test subjects at the end of 15 and 30 month intervals.
The unexpected null results could be due to several imbalances between the control and test groups as well as inconsistent execution of the program’s protocols at the different schools, note the researchers. However, they add that the results also suggest that childhood obesity prevention alone cannot be achieved by schools alone.
“While school is an important setting for influencing children’s health behavior, and delivery of knowledge and skills to support healthy lifestyles is one of its mandatory functions, wider influences from the family, community, media and the food industry must also be considered,” they write in the study.
They also suggest that interventions based on behavior economics, such as nudge theory, which uses financial incentives to prompt healthier behavior, also merit additional investigation.
While the findings may be surprising initially, they may not be when considered in the broader context, argues Melissa Wake, a pediatrician and scientific director at the GenV initiative in Victoria, Australia.
She notes in an accompanying editorial that “one reason for lack of progress may be the very fact that many anti-obesity programs are delivered through schools. At least in the United States, children typically gain fitness and lose fat during school terms, with virtually all increases in overweight and obesity occurring over the summer holidays – just when the programs cease to operate.”
Wake adds that this observation paired the with study’s results suggest “it is time to step back, take stock, carefully examine longitudinal data from contemporary children and generate new, solution focused approaches that could maximize health gain and be rigorously and speedily tested.”