A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University have found that obesity is linked to high absenteeism rates in school-aged children.
The study of more than 1,000 students in 4th, 5th and 6th grades in the Philadelphia school system determined that body mass index, or BMI, is as significant of a factor in determining absenteeism from school as age, race, socioeconomic status and gender, formerly the four main predictors.
The study, conducted from 2003-2004, also found that overweight children were absent on average 20 percent more than their normal-weight peers.
Dr. Gary D. Foster, who runs the Center for Obesity Research and Education, received funding from the National Institutes of Health to measure the height and weight of the students. Researchers then calculated the students BMI, which relates height to weight.
Based on BMI, 2 percent of the children were underweight, 58 percent were normal weight, 17 percent were overweight, and 23 percent were what the researchers consider obese.
Researchers examined school attendance records of close to 1,200 students who attend the city’s poorest schools. More than 80 percent of students at these schools were eligible for free and reduced-cost meal plans. The study reveals that the obese children missed 12 days of school during the school year, compared to 10 days for children with normal weight.
“Missing this much school is setting these children up for all sorts of negative stuff,” said Andrew B. Geier, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Penn, who spearheaded the study.
Geier said that what’s keeping overweight children from school, more than health issues, is the stigma and the bullying that often accompanies being overweight. This is particularly true, according to the American Obesity Association, in minority communities where Type 2 diabetes is on the rise among African-American and Hispanic youth.
“I would think that this information might be very interesting to those agencies working with young children,” said Geier, who said that for so long researchers have focused exclusively on age, sex, race, and socio-economic factors to explain why children miss school. BMI, he said, had not been part of the equation.
“Some of the beliefs that experts have had might be challenged by what’s in this study,” said Geier. “It’s clear to me that moving forward, BMI has to be considered.”
Everett A. Johnson, a physical education teacher in Philadelphia, said that the study uncovers shocking information that he did not know.
“I just never made the connection,” he said. “When you look around the country, physical education is being cut from schools, particularly in black and brown neighborhoods. It’s clear to me, that if we are going to ever get control of this obesity problem and get students to want to come to school and feel good about themselves, we’ve got to have more, not less physical education in our schools.”
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