Youth obesity provides food for thought

With heart disease developing among children from the age of 10 through poor diet and low activity, young Australians are part of what the World Health Organisation has already termed an "international epidemic of childhood obesity".

"We already know that the problems associated with weight gain are starting to manifest themselves in increasingly young children," says Dr Michael Booth of the University of Sydney's Centre for Overweight and Obesity.

Dr Booth is Principal Investigator on a project, which with the support of the NSW Government will survey different aspects of fitness, physical activity and eating habits of pupils in more than 90 schools across the State.

The NSW Schools Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey 2004 (SPANS), a joint project between Sydney University, the NSW Department of Health, and the NSW Department of Education, will survey around 8,000 students aged between 5 and 16 years.

Conducted by a team of field researchers and experienced teachers specially chosen for the survey, the research will quantify the time school students spend in physically active pursuits, their fitness levels, and the proportion of young people in NSW who are overweight or obese. Importantly, the survey will seek to assess whether the children's health is improving or deteriorating.

"We know that for kids with a very unhealthy lifestyle heart disease starts developing from the age of 10," says Dr Booth. "The study is all about protecting our children and reducing the prevalence of these problems. We are now calling on students and parents across the State to get involved."

An additional sub study of around 600 Year 10 students will take blood pressure measurements and a small blood sample. Liz Develin, Manager of Nutrition and Physical Health at NSW Health, encourages students to participate. "To design programs and activities which are suitable to children and young people, we need to know more about current trends."

The sub study will enable the team to identify the proportion of young people at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and liver disease. Results are to be made available to parents and will provide important information about their child's future health. A final report is due by the end of this year along with a set of recommendations to the State Government.

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