Childhood obesity rates have drastically increased in recent years, but it’s children from lower income families and ethnic minority backgrounds that face the highest risks.
The racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities that impact childhood obesity are only growing wider in the United States and the UK.
In the UK, by age 11, a child from a disadvantaged family is three times more likely to be obese than a child from a more advantaged family.
These risks are even higher among children from Black African, Black Caribbean, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi backgrounds.
Many studies have shown that childhood obesity negatively impacts health and wellbeing and can increase the risk of cancer, other diseases, and early death as an adult.
In a new study published in the journal BMJ Open, researchers from the University of Cambridge found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less physically active, which corresponds to similar inequalities found in childhood obesity rates.
Vigorous physical activity like running or swimming has been shown to decrease waist size and body fat much more effectively than moderate physical activity, and it’s recommended that children are physically active at least 60 minutes per day.
“When we look at overall physical activity we don’t see clear differences between children from different backgrounds despite clear inequalities in obesity,” says Rebecca Love, the lead author of the study. “To investigate this further, we looked at whether overall physical activity was hiding inequalities in the intensity with which that activity is performed that might explain these patterns.”
The researchers reviewed data from 5,200 children who are 7 years old and had worn accelerometers for ten hours a day for three days to measure activity levels as part of the Millennium Cohort Study.
Higher levels of education achieved by parents were linked to more minutes of intense exercise among children, and higher income households also had children who were more active than children from lower income families.
The researchers found that white children were intensely active three minutes more than to children from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, and overall children from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds completed 2.2 minutes fewer of vigorous exercise compared to other children in the Cohort study.
Even though the differences in physical activity averaged out to mere minutes, the researchers say that on a population level, these differences could have a much larger impact.
“There are clear differences in the amount of vigorous physical activity a child does depending on their socioeconomic and ethnic background,” said Dr. Esther van Sluijs, a senior author of the study. “Although individually, these differences are small, at a population level they are likely to make a difference. Changes to reduce existing gaps in vigorous intensity activity could help reduce existing inequalities in levels of obesity in children.”
Besides further emphasizing the widening racial and economic disparities of childhood obesity, the study also calls for finding ways to provide ample opportunities and access for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to engage in more vigorous physical activity.
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