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Obesity prevention in high-risk kids – challenging but worth it

Amid skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and dire predictions for its consequences (this generation could be the first to experience an overall decline in life expectancy, for example), scientists are scrambling to come up with effective ways to keep children in at-risk populations from gaining too much weight.

Results of two such efforts are published today in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Thomas Robinson, MD, a Stanford pediatrician and director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, led one of the studies, which tested a program of culturally-tailored dance classes and TV-watching reduction in African-American girls in Oakland, Calif. (The companion study tested a similar intervention in Memphis, Tenn.)

"Low-income African-American girls are one of the groups at highest risk of obesity and its complications, yet very little had ever been done to try and address this group," Robinson told me.

As I discussed in a press release, the Oakland study had mixed success. The researchers weren't able to show differences in average body mass index between the girls who took the dance classes and those in the comparison group, who took a traditional health-education class. However, at the end of the two-year study, BMI was significantly lower in two especially high-risk subgroups of dancers: girls from single-parent households and those who watched the most TV. Also, encouragingly, the entire group of dancers had reductions in cholesterol, diabetes risk factors and depressive symptoms.

These results highlight the challenges of delivering health interventions to high-risk neighborhoods, Robinson said. The dance classes changed venue six times during the study because of violence at or near the community centers where classes were held, and as a result, girls' attendance was much lower than the researchers had planned for. But he told me:

It's important that people not be discouraged from doing research in areas that have the greatest need, because that's where we really need answers to help the populations that are at highest risk.

Previously: Obesity in kids: A growing and dangerous epidemic, Stanford pediatrician discusses developing effective programs to curtail childhood obesity, Major effort launched to prevent, treat childhood obesity and Stealth equals health

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