New Study Warns School Holidays are Contributing to Aussie Kids Weight Gain

The fact that Australian children are overweight isn’t news to anyone. While sunny days and more free time to enjoy the outdoors might have us assume that our kids are more active when they’re on a school break, a new study by the University of South Australia warns that summer holidays are a time when children are at risk of further weight gain.

What percentage of Australian children are overweight?

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in four Australian kids or teenagers are overweight or obese. Physical inactivity combined with excessive consumption of sugar have been identified as the big culprits for years but despite understanding the cause of the problem, as a society, we aren’t managing to tackle it.

A 35 percent rise in obesity over the past 25 years is nothing short of alarming and when you consider the link between obesity and other chronic diseases that affect older Australians, the forecast for our future population is pretty dire.

new study australian children are overweight

Photo by Jessica Lewis

New research shows summer holidays contribute to weight gain in Aussie kids

The “Life on Holidays” study conducted by the University of South Australia’s Alliance for Exercise, Nutrition, and Activity team is the first of its kind to be conducted outside of the US.

The results of the study showed that primary school age children (Grades 4 and 5) had a greater rate of increased body fat, and their aerobic fitness declined faster during the school holidays compared to school term periods.

Specifically, the children:

  • slept 12 minutes less per day
  • spent 12 minutes less per being physically active
  • spent an additional 70 minutes per day on screen time.

UniSA Professor and lead researcher Tim Olds said, “On school holidays, kids are significantly less active than when they’re at school, and this translates into higher body fat percentages and lower levels of fitness.”

The study ran over 2 years with a subject group of 9-10 year olds.

It’s not surprising to find that kids get fatter at a faster rate on school holidays compared to school term, and lose a lot of fitness. If kids spent the whole year on holidays, their percentage of body fat would increase by about 4% more each year than if they had no holidays, and their fitness would decline by about 10% each year,” says Professor Olds.

“Kids who are not getting enough exercise and movement have a greater risk of developing health issues, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes later in life, so it’s important that we encourage kids to stay active and embrace a balance of downtime and exercise.”

Why are Aussie children gaining more weight in the school holidays?

While everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy some rest over the holidays and partake in some festive indulgence, the issue with our kids is that the break goes for 6 weeks, whereas most adults return to some version of their usual routine in less time, and the younger a person is when the weight starts to creep on, the bigger the problems can be down the track.

Co-researcher Dr Dot Dumuid blames the unstructured nature of holiday periods as part of the problem. Not only has the school term ended, but most sports and recreational activities pause over the extended summer holidays too.

“A defining factor of school holidays is that they’re unstructured – they can get food from the fridge when they want it, and generally have access to computers and devices – and there’s no doubt that screen time plays a key role in increased sedentary time during school holidays,”

With the temptation of electronic devices, the ability to communicate with friends remotely, and typical Australian households having less and less backyard space to play in, it’s easy to see how children are more sedentary than previous generations.

“When you compare this to the structure of a school day, where kids have a prepared lunch, and scheduled PE lessons and playtimes, it’s vastly different,” said Dr Dumuid.

“We all want our kids to be healthy. And while devices and TV may provide a bit of babysitting, is it really worth your child’s health?”

australian children overweight

Photo by Pixabay

Olds, T., Dumuid, D., Eglitis, E. et al. Changes in fitness and fatness in Australian schoolchildren during the summer holidays: fitness lost, fatness regained? A cohort study. BMC Public Health 23, 2094 (2023).

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