Obesity tied to students' missing school, study finds

Feb. 28, 2012, 7:01 a.m.

A recent study found that the chances of a student missing two or more days of school per month doubled for overweight children and quadrupled for obese children (ages six to 11). (Credit: Marie/Flickr Creative Commons)

A recent study by the International Journal of Obesity has found a link between child obesity and severe school absenteeism.

The study analyzed the data of 1,387 children from six to 11 years old and 2,185 adolescents from 12 to 18 years old between 2005 and 2008. The study found that approximately 19 percent of all of the study's subjects were obese and 16 percent were overweight.

Researchers did not see a significant difference in school days missed in the past year among the weight groups. They did, find, however, that the chances of a student missing two or more days of school per month doubled for overweight children and quadrupled for obese children. There was no significant association found among adolescents.

The study is particularly relevant to residents of South Los Angeles, a place that had an obesity rate of 34.4 percent in 2010. A study by L.A. County's Department of Public Health also found that Los Angeles City Council District 9 -- which, as it currently stands, overlaps with most of OnCentral's area of coverage -- was among the worst offenders in terms of its residents' obesity, with 36.7 percent of adults being obese in 2007 and 29.5 percent of children being obese in 2008.

According to the California Endowment, South Los Angeles has the highest rate of child obesity in the county.

Brian Leung, the director of the School Psychology Program and chair of Department of Educational Support Services in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, said that people who live in the inner-city are much more prone to obesity for two main reasons: an unhealthy diet and a lack of exercise.

"There's a lack of information related to nutrition, a lack of time to cook good meals due to long hours at low-paying jobs and getting home late," Leung wrote in an email. "Fast food is often cheap and tempting, but has high sugar content, as well as a lot of carbs, fats and oils. And there's a feeling of entitlement to bad eating after a long day's hard work -- people think, 'I've earned this,' 'I deserve this.'"

In terms of exercise, Leung said there's a lack of opportunities to exercise in the inner city, noting that the inner city has a higher crime rate, and so exercising outdoors, especially at night, isn't always an option.

"Gyms are not as readily available for general exercises and are costly," he explained. "Residents may lack knowledge about forms of exercise, what to do to benefit what part of the body, the need to exercise even if one has a physical job. All these reasons lead to less exercising for inner-city residents."

On top of that, Leung said, the inner city promotes a generally sedentary lifestyle: Beyond work, families of a low socioeconomic status won't exercise because they're tired or have no interest. Children, he added, often lack supervision after school, "so they engage in activities that are not healthy -- sitting in front of the TV or video games, eating junk food."

Family, too, plays a critical role. "Kids basically eat what their families eat, so an obese child often, not always, comes from an unhealthy family," he continued. "Extended families do reinforce each other [in habits] of overeating. And if everyone is overweight, then it doesn't seem abnormal and becomes the norm."

The effects of obesity on schooling can be many, he continued. Obese children are easily tired, sluggish, frequently distracted by thoughts of eating and potentially even uncomfortable in small desks or tables, all of which may contribute to poor academic performance.

The social effects, however, might better illustrate the link between obesity and school absenteeism.

"Obese kids might not be able to keep up in sports, which could lead to low self-confidence," said Leung. "There's also the issue of a poor body image. They might be teased by others, which can lead to their becoming bullies or becoming withdrawn. Their social emotional health takes a major hit, which contributes to a lack of motivation for school."

The reality of childhood obesity, said Leung, is that it can lead to fewer friends. "And that provides less of a buffer for kids against negative experiences."

The Los Angeles Times reports that the study didn't provide definitive explanations for the correlations between obesity and absenteeism. It did, though, say that the study -- echoing much of what Leung said -- speculated that missed days could be indicative of parents' health status or socioeconomic status, as could a fear of being bullied, teased or embarrassed of participating in certain physical activities.

Photo by Marie via Flickr Creative Commons.

Stories nearby