Excessive TV, lack of safe play space, raise obesity risk for young black girls

September 10, 2004

Too much television and too few recreational opportunities mean not enough physical activity and a higher risk of obesity for young black girls, a new study says.

"Traffic dangers and lack of affordable and accessible neighborhood recreation opportunities kept girls in this study inside," says Penny Gordon-Larsen, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina Schools of Public Health and Medicine. Once inside, the girls spent much of their time watching TV. Their mothers or grandmothers did not object to the girls watching many hours of television, either.

The research appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The adults were often unaware of how much TV their daughters watched. One said her daughter saw only two to three hours of TV on a weekend, while her daughter confessed to having the set on for most of the day.

Gordon-Larsen and her colleagues conducted 51 in-depth interviews with girls age 6 to 9 and their mothers or grandmothers as part of a church-based, obesity prevention pilot study in North Carolina.

The adults cared more about the type of television programs the girls watched, rather than the length of time they logged in front of the screen. Many saw television as an electronic babysitter, pacifying the children while the adults took care of other chores around the house.

"They are limited in what they can watch," said one mother of her children, "but we don't limit how much they can watch."

This sedentary behavior can have long-term health effects, Gordon-Larsen says.

"Inactive children are likely to remain inactive throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, and are at high risk for obesity," she says.

Neither the girls nor the adults showed much interest in going outdoors to play. Either television was too attractive, or they believed their neighborhoods lacked recreational activities or were unsafe for play.

The mothers complained about traffic, unrestrained dogs, poor facilities, a lack of sidewalks and an unwillingness to let children play outside unsupervised.

The adults understood the health benefits of physical activity but lacked the motivation to take part themselves, inevitably setting a poor example for their daughters, Gordon-Larsen says.

When asked about physical activities they enjoyed with their friends or on their own, the girls listed such favorites as hopscotch, jumping rope, dancing, swimming and bicycling. When asked about physical activities they could enjoy together, the favorite of both the girls and their mothers was walking, but the most frequent answers referred to sedentary activities like eating or, of course, watching TV.

"Despite this interest in walking," Gordon-Larsen notes, "walking was not an activity that was regularly included in their schedules because of time, motivation or pedestrian safety."

To reduce inactivity and risk for obesity among such girls, Gordon-Larsen suggests increasing affordable and accessible opportunities for physical activity (including improving traffic safety), motivating caregivers and children to exercise more and countering positive perceptions of the role of television.
Funding for this study was provided by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health; and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Women's Health.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Health Behavior News Service: 202-387-2829 or www.hbns.org.

Interviews: Contact Penny Gordon-Larsen at 919-843-9966 or pglarsen@unc.edu.

American Journal of Preventive Medicine: Contact the editorial office at 858-457-7292.

Center for Advancing Health

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