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Beyond diet and exercise

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We've had some good news on the obesity topic this year. A couple of West Virginia doctors have seen the number of obese and overweight kids level off, and some measurements have actually decreased slightly. Everyone hopes this is the beginning of a new trend.

It suggests parents are getting the message about eating fewer, healthier calories and creating opportunities for their children to move around more. But I've never believed most parents couldn't recite that mantra in their sleep. After all, we've heard this lecture all our lives.

More likely, many of us lose faith that what we do actually makes a difference. Or we may fail to appreciate the rate at which sugar in those soft drinks and even fruit juice add up and convert to fat. Or we've been taught (and doctored) to think of our bodies in isolated sections instead of as one complex organism in which one thing affects everything else, even if the connection is not immediately obvious.

So here is something to think about from this week's Journal of the American Medical Association's Pediatrics: Things besides diet and exercise can affect your weight.

Researchers gathered families with children ages 2 to 5 who had TVs in the children's bedrooms. For some of the families, they promoted four behaviors that past research has associated with healthier weight: Getting adequate sleep, eating meals as a family, limiting TV time and removing TVs from bedrooms.

After six months, families who received motivational phone calls, texts, visits and mailings did change some behaviors -- children slept longer, ate with their families and watched less TV compared to the control group. (TVs in bedrooms remained unchanged). And did it make any difference to their weight?

Yes. Kids in the families who made these changes had a slight drop in body mass index.

The study was small and short. Who knows if the improved habits will endure? But the outcome is instructive: Children's weight improved after changes that were not directly about diet and exercise.

Plenty of adults have discovered for themselves the not-so-obvious connections to weight and other factors in life. Science is catching up and documenting them. Late-shift workers tend to struggle with weight gain. So do people in stressful jobs, such as law enforcement or social work. So do people who live with violence or in precarious economic circumstances.

We've also heard all this advice before. Watch less TV and spend more time with books, pets, creative toys and outdoors. It makes you a better student and increases your Vitamin D. Eat meals as a family because it keeps you informed about what's going on in children's lives and gives opportunities to teach and guide. And get enough sleep. The brain does important work then that affects memory and performance the next day. Tip: If you have to be awakened by a person or an alarm, you're not getting enough sleep.

And now the Pediatrics report reaffirms habits that are good for school performance and social development are good for the body, too.

The lesson for families and schools is clear. Sure, eat right and exercise. But evaluate the rest of the day, too. If plenty of sleep, social meals and less TV helps reduce excess weight, the opposite probably takes kids in the other direction. Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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