While summer may be a break that most children look forward to, the three-month hiatus from school may also have some unintended health consequences.
Active Living Research recently published a report that shows emerging evidence that children are gaining more weight during summer vacation than they do during the entire school year. Some studies have also found that the fitness improvements children achieve during the school year are erased over the summer months.
Adults may remember their childhood summers as being active – riding bikes, walking to a local swimming pool or lake, playing active games outdoors with other children in the neighborhood – but these summer activities have become less common. According to Active Living Research, parents are increasingly concerned about neighborhood safety, which limits children’s outdoor play and activities.
Michael Beets, an associate professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at University of South Carolina, authored the research brief on summertime weight gain. Beets says although the research doesn’t say definitively what causes summertime weight gain, he encourages parents to pay close attention to what their children do during the summer.
“Having lax bedtime and wake time rules, unregulated TV/videogame/screen time, perhaps easier access to foods and beverages in the home versus during the school year, and fewer structured activity opportunities might all contribute to excessive weight gain during the summer,” Beets said.
While many school programs have had successful results, there are very few programs outside of the school year that support health and nutrition to ensure children continue on a positive track during the summer.
Summer programs, such as summer day camps, serve 14 million youth annually. In 2011, healthy eating and physical activity standards endorsed by the National Afterschool Association included standards for day-long summer programs. The standards called for increasing the amounts of fruits and vegetables children eat, and the amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity they should engage in during summer programs.
A study on the types of foods and beverages children bring to summer day camps for lunch and snacks found that almost half of the children brought both sugar-sweetened beverages (such as non-100 percent juice drinks) and chips. Only a third of children brought fruits, and almost none brought vegetables.
It may be beneficial for summer programs to incorporate some of the nutrition and health strategies that school programs have been implementing successfully. More research is also needed to understand what children do during summer that dramatically differs from the school year – physical activity, dietary, screen time, and sleep behaviors – that contribute to unhealthy weight gain.
“Observational data on child weight gain clearly shows that children either maintain their current BMI percentile or reduce this during the nine-month school year only to have this dramatically increased during summer vacation. Thus, schools might actually be the best obesity preventive effort we have for children right now, and it’s only when children are outside of routine contact with the school environment, such as summer vacation, when unhealthy weight gain occurs,” explains Beets. “To me, it’s really important to communicate to schools that they are doing a great job!”
To read the full report, please click here.
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