Research finds U.S. adolescents inactive; blacks, Hispanics, Asians at biggest risk

September 14, 1999

CHAPEL HILL - U.S. adolescents exercise too little and spend far too much time watching television and videos and playing computer games, a major new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows.

Minorities, including blacks, Hispanics and Asians, are less active than whites generally and face greater health risks from being overweight, the study found. Girls, especially older ones, tend to be least active.

"Childhood and adolescent obesity is a major public health problem for American youth, particularly because it is increasing rapidly, lasts into adulthood and is associated with illness and premature death," said Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen, Dannon Institute postdoctoral fellow in interdisciplinary nutrition science at UNC-CH's Carolina Population Center. "Physical activity, on the other hand, has been shown to improve bone health, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and selected cancers and promote psychological well-being."

Gordon-Larsen and colleagues conducted their study -- the most detailed of its kind and in some ways unique -- to uncover possible racial and ethnic differences in activity among subgroups of U.S. teen-agers. Researchers wanted to target Asian and Hispanic youths because no comparable work had been done on nationally representative samples, and such ethnic groups are burgeoning here. They also broke down minority populations to look at subgroups such as Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese and Filipinos.

A report on the findings appears in the September issue of the Journal of Pediatrics. Besides Gordon-Larsen, authors are Drs. Barry M. Popkin, professor of nutrition at the UNC-CH schools of public health and medicine, and Robert G. McMurray, professor of physical education, exercise and sport science.

The study analyzed information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) on more than 13,000 teen-agers enrolled in the seventh to 12th grades across the nation in 1996. Information came from detailed, confidential surveys of teens about their experiences, practices and attitudes and included 3,135 non-Hispanic blacks, 2,446 Hispanics and 976 Asians.

Researchers looked chiefly at patterns of both physical activity and behaviors such as watching television and videos and playing computer games that were combined into what they termed "inactivity," Larsen said. The two categories often are related but are not necessarily opposites.

Among findings were that: "As we expected, this work confirms that physical activity is very low for American kids," Gordon-Larsen said. "It shows that we really need to provide opportunities for adolescents to be more active through community centers or especially physical education classes in school.

"Programs aimed at minority adolescents are even more important because those young people seem to have the highest risks. That doesn't mean that non-minority kids are highly active. Overall, U.S. adolescents spend very little time being physically active and spend a substantial amount of time in inactive pursuits, such as watching TV."
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Note: Larsen can be reached at 919-843-9966 (w) or 919-968-6594 (h), Popkin at 966-1732 (w) or 919-942-7827 (h). McMurray's work number is 919-962-1371.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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