Exercising doesn’t help kids looking at screens all day offset obesity risk

TORONTO, Ontario — Just staying active isn’t enough to help children avoid obesity, according to a team from the University of Toronto. Researchers report lots of exercise does not offset obesity risk among preteens who spend eight or more hours in front of a screen daily. Many have heard about the importance of “work-life balance,” but these findings suggest parents and caregivers need to be aware of their kids’ “exercise-screen balance” as well.

“Spending most of one’s free time in front of screens can replace time for other important activities including physical activity, socialization, and sleep,” says lead author Jason Nagata, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco, in a media release.

Meanwhile, the study also finds that minimal screen time alone isn’t enough to offset obesity risk among teens who don’t exercise regularly.

It isn’t exactly easy these days to coax kids away from the TV, computer, and video game systems. Study co-author Kyle Ganson, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, suggests parents should encourage their children to move more through playful activities, sports, and time spent outdoors.

“Participating in physical activities as a family are important ways to connect and strengthen relationships,” Ganson says.

Researchers reached these conclusions after asking 5,797 preteens (10-14 years-old) how much time they usually spend on screens. Also, a Fitbit helped to track the participants’ daily steps. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, preteens reported an average of eight hours of recreational screen time per day.

It’s worth noting that in another study, also published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Prof. Nagata collected compelling evidence suggesting screen time during adolescence has an association with obesity, diabetes onset, and larger waist circumference some 24 years later. That project assessed a nationally representative sample of 7,105 adolescents for over two decades.

“Parents should have regular conversations with their children about screen use and discourage excessive time spent on screens,” Prof. Nagata concludes. “They could encourage screen-free time before bedtime or during family meals. Parents can also act as role models for their children with their own screen time and physical activity.”

The study is published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

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