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Early schooling cuts obesity

Girls who start school earlier are exposed to more sophisticated health classes sooner and may participate in more advanced physical exercise.

Early schooling cuts obesity

An earlier school start date could cut obesity in teenage girls.

To examine the relationship between early school entry and body weight status among adolescent girls, the researchers in America analysed data on almost 6,000 teenage girls from an American survey done in the early 1980s. Using data collected between 1997 and 2004, the researchers took advantage of school enrollment cut-offs. Children whose birthdays fall just after the cut-off date are required to delay starting school until the next year, making them old for their grade. Children whose birthdays are just before the cut-off date are young for their grade.

Cut-off dates create two groups of children at the same developmental stage with one year's difference in theirs. Comparing the two groups, it was found that among girls whose birthdays were within a month of the cut-off date, those who started early for their age (that is, almost a full year earlier than their oldest classmates) were more likely to be normal weight. Those who started late for their age were more likely to be overweight or obese. The effect was significant, with girls who started school earlier being 30 percent less likely to be obese and nearly 20 percent less likely to be overweight than girls who started later.

The results held even after the researchers controlled for age, race, level of maternal education and mother's body weight. In boys, there was no relationship between school start time and weight.

The reason why girls who started school early for their age had lower body mass indexes (BMI), later isn't known but one possibility is that younger girls may be exposed to relatively older friends, who are more careful about their weight and physical appearance. Schooling also might help lower weight because of physical education classes, the researchers speculated. Girls who start school earlier are exposed to more sophisticated health classes sooner and may participate in more advanced physical exercise. The findings may represent the cumulative effect of early childhood with changes in just a few small behaviours having large and lasting effects on small bodies.
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