Study Links Childhood Obesity and Fitness to Midlife Cognition

Amy Barczy

| 4 min read

Amy Barczy is a former brand journalist who authored...

Group of happy joyful school kids boys and girls running with ou
Developing strategies to help reduce childhood obesity has never been more important, as a new study shows the impact of children’s physical health, activity level and fitness on their brain health as they age. Children who had the highest levels of cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness, as well as lower average waist-to-hip ratios, had better cognitive function during midlife as an adult, according to the study’s findings. The results are true regardless of academic ability or socioeconomic status as a child – as well as midlife habits of smoking and drinking alcohol. The study is the first of its kind, as it followed more than 1,200 people from their childhoods in 1985 over the next 30 years of their lives. It was conducted by the National Centre for Healthy Ageing, based at Peninsula Health and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. These findings emphasize the importance of programs to address childhood obesity, as it is occurring at earlier ages in the U.S. Additionally, nearly 20% of children ages 2 to 19 are considered obese, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Causes of obesity

Some causes of obesity are genetic, and some causes are a result of illnesses and medications. Other causes include food, activity level and sleep. Consider this: 
  • 60% of children don’t eat enough fruit and 93% of children don’t eat enough vegetables
  • Less than 24% of children ages 6 to 17 participate in the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day
  • Six in 10 middle school students and seven in 10 high school students don’t get enough sleep
If you’re concerned about your child’s health, talk to a pediatrician or health care provider. Weight is not the only measure of health and wellness. 

Helping children make healthy choices

Educating and encouraging children to make healthy choices when it comes to what they eat and what they do is a great way to set them up for success. Here are some ways parents can help children make healthier food choices:
  • Talk about what makes a balanced diet, and the important of fruits and vegetables, in an age-appropriate way without adding shame or guilt.
  • Prepare for the week ahead by reviewing the school lunch menu with them, or meal planning what lunches to pack.
  • Lead by example by incorporating fruits and vegetables into your diet, and being excited about them.
  • Try to eat meals together, if possible.
  • Keep healthier options like fruit and pre-cut vegetables on hand for children to snack on.
Here are some ways parents can help children get more active: 
  • Set boundaries with indoor activities like screen time to allow for physical play and activity.
  • Build in time for exercise and fun. Some children can get caught up in homework and extracurriculars, leaving them little time for movement.
  • Toys can help. Sometimes a ball or frisbee is all it takes to get children moving.
  • Make it fun: exercise for children is more like active play, not hitting the gym or running a mile. Dancing, biking, swimming or playing on a playground can all be forms of exercise. For older children, finding a sport that they enjoy can help motivate them to continue on. This can be a group sport like soccer or basketball, or a solo activity like yoga or rock climbing.

How Blue Cross is tackling childhood obesity

Since 2009, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has worked to address childhood obesity through the Building Health Communities program. The initiative supports children’s health by providing teachers, administrators and students the resources, curriculum, equipment and professional development to create healthier school environments, prevent childhood obesity, reduce chronic disease, improve academic achievement and address mental health and well-being. Funds provided by the program have helped improve the health of nearly half a million Michigan students and more than 1,000 schools. Learn more about the program here at More from MIBluesPerspectives:
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MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association