American teens have got it pretty good. As a group, they have the world’s highest disposable income for their age group. They also have the most clothing, the most computers, and the highest rate of automobile ownership.
But according to new research, they’ve also got something else: the most excess weight.
Researchers with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services looked at weight data collected for 13-15-year-olds in the United States and 14 other industrialized nations. They found that American teens, both boys and girls, weigh more than their peers abroad.
That may not come as a surprise to anyone, given the alarming increase in weight and obesity among Americans of all ages. But it seems even the natural adolescent pre-occupation with appearance and body image hasn’t kept teens from growing into bodies they may not really want.
The researchers looked at data on about 30,000 13-15-year-olds in the U.S., Israel and 13 European countries. They tracked body mass index (BMI), a measurement that is calculated by dividing body height into weight.
It turned out that American kids were the most overweight by a long shot for both age groups, and for both boys and girls.
Among the U.S. boys, 12.6 percent of the 13-year-olds were overweight, and 13.9 percent of the 15-year-olds were overweight. Greece had the next highest proportion of husky lads, with 8.9 percent of the younger group and 10.8 percent of the older boys.
Among the younger girls, the U.S. had 10.8 percent overweight, followed by Portugal with 8.3 percent.
But while the proportion of overweight girls dropped with age in other lands, in the U.S., it rose. Among 15-year-old girls, fully 15.1 percent were overweight, and that’s more than double the next ranking country, Portugal, with 6.7 percent.
So, why are U.S. teens so much bigger?
Some of it has to do with all those computers and TVs. More than a third of U.S. homes now have a computer, and families with children aged 12 to 17 are the most likely to own them. It’s a growing factor in Americans’ sedentary lifestyles, with e-mailing, shopping, banking, working, and studying now adding hours to the time we spend parked in front of a monitor.
Add to that the stunning success of video games, which are now part of the daily routine of 65 percent of all U.S. households, according to one study. Another found that 30 percent of males say they spend between seven and thirty hours a week playing games. Video gaming could be on computer or a TV set-up, but no matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of sitting around.
And consider that there is plenty of data that show people eat more in front of a screen. People do more nibbling in front of the computer and more munching in front of the TV than they tend to do without the tube on.
And for the most part, they’re not nibbling celery sticks. Consider the advertising influence. More than 90 percent of food ads on kids’ television programs are for sugared cereals, candy, cookies and junk food. Those advertisements are not inspiring teens to rush to the kitchen for a carrot and a tall glass of cool water.
Another factor in the American teen trend is the overall reduction in activity. Much has been made of cutbacks in physical education programs in schools around the country. U.S. schools currently have among the lowest requirements for P.E. Health policy researchers say the loss of regular, mandatory physical activity has played a role in the increase of weight and its associated health problems among children and teens.
But it goes beyond that. In the U.S., most kids don’t walk much of anywhere. Few regularly walk to school or work, compared to youth elsewhere. In Europe, where communities tended to grow up around town centers and people are still likely to hop on a bicycle or stroll down to the market, people of all ages are much more likely to get a little physical activity just in the normal course of daily doings.
In the United States, our community structures are designed to accommodate cars, not pedestrians or bicyclists, and few people regularly walk to jobs or to places where they take care of their household or personal business, including teens.
High schools are routinely built nowadays with vast student parking lots to accommodate all the road-ready youth in attendance. Buses transport many students, and even when children live close enough to schools to comfortably walk, parents often drive and drop them off as part of the morning commute routine.
Still, it’s not a hopeless situation. While the latest hot trend in video games is “dance simulators” that actually get enthusiasts up and moving, they’re not going to offer any real health redemption for U.S. youth.
But health and youth advocates are campaigning to get more physical education back into schools, along with health education curricula designed to make young people more aware of the health consequences of their dietary and activity habits.
And families–or even just teens themselves–can make small changes that really help improve overall fitness. Adding in even a short daily walk and cutting out just one soda a day could make a big difference in a teenage body over the course of a year.
THROUGH THICK & THIN: Overweight American Teens
Some kind of regular physical activity is critical for teens’ changing bodies. Let your school officials and legislators know that this is a part of the curriculum that you value and want retained and funded. And if your local schools have already cut back on physical education classes, consider identifying a daily task that could get your teen’s body moving, like vacuuming, washing floors or even walking the dog.