A school-based screening program used in one Japanese city helps keep children's weight problems from getting worse, according to a new report. The program, instituted in Kagoshima City elementary schools in 1992, appears to aid children whether they are mildly or highly overweight, researchers found. This is important because children who are modestly overweight often continue to pack on pounds during their school years, making weight loss a tough task later on.
Although Japan's weight problem does not approach the magnitude of that seen in many other industrialized nations, such as the U.S., obesity is a growing concern. It has been estimated that one-quarter of Japanese women and one-fifth of Japanese men are overweight. And health officials have pointed to waning fitness levels among school-age children, who are spending more time playing video games at the expense of exercise and sports.
In the new study, researchers looked at a program in which school nurses conduct health screenings of overweight school children between the ages of 6 and 11. Parents are encouraged to take their children to their family doctor, and can choose to put them into the treatment component of the program. In the treatment phase, parents and kids receive counselling on nutrition and exercise, and are encouraged to make monthly visits to gauge their progress.
Children are asked to meet goals such as taking time to chew their food, cutting down on sugary juice, eating more vegetables and walking for exercise. For their part, parents keep records of what and how much their children eat during the two days before each counselling session.
The researchers found that among 40 overweight children who attended at least three treatment sessions, average weight declined during the study period, while it crept up among 240 children who were screened but not treated. Specifically, only five of the 40 children (12%) in the treatment group saw their weight problems worsen over an average of 14 months, according to the report. That compares with 133 of the 240 children (55%) who went untreated.
For highly overweight children, school-based screening and advice to see their family doctor was often enough to rein in weight gain - though these children still did better when they received treatment as well.
In contrast, many of the more modestly overweight children continued to put on excess pounds when they received screening but no treatment, the researchers found. The findings suggest that "family-involved" diet and exercise counselling works for both highly and mildly overweight children.
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