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A new way for tweens to slim down: reading

October 6, 2008 |  4:48 pm

The usual routes to getting overweight kids to slim down are exercise programs, behavior modification and sometimes medication. But there may be a new type of treatment to consider: reading.

BookcoverA recent study found that after reading a book with underlying messages of getting healthy via physical activity and good nutrition, girls ages 9 to 13 showed a slight decrease in their body mass index.

The book in question is "Lake Rescue," part of the Beacon Street Girls series of books, aimed at tween girls, that tackles issues such as cyber bullying and divorce. In this book, an overweight girl goes to an outdoor adventure camp with her class. Although worried about being picked on for being heavy, she finds a role model who teaches her about becoming healthier through eating right and trying new activities.

It’s a soft-sell message that seems to get through, says Alexandra Russell, a medical student at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., and lead author of the study presented at the Obesity Society’s annual scientific meeting in Phoenix this week.

Participants in the study, suggested by the book’s author, were 64 obese girls already enrolled in Duke’s Healthy Lifestyles program. They were divided into three groups and tracked for one to three months: one group read no books, one read another Beacon Street Girls book that didn’t deal with health and weight loss issues, and one read "Lake Rescue." The "Lake Rescue" group decreased its BMI scores 0.71%, the group that read another book decreased its BMI scores .33%, and the group that had no intervention increased its BMI scores .05%.

"Although the numbers aren’t huge, a lot of overweight girls in that age group tend to gain more and more weight as they age," Russell says. "The fact that they were able to lose weight is an important first step in reversing the trend. That might be enough to kick start them into adopting a more healthy lifestyle change." She attributes the BMI reduction in the other book group to the fact that they were reading instead of watching TV, where they would most likely be exposed to food commercials.

Although pediatric obesity is a complex issue with many contributing factors, Russell believes that something as simple as a book could help.

"What parents can take away from this," she says, "is that children can change their behaviors and you don’t need to hit them over the head with instructing them about what foods are good and what foods are bad. It could be something as simple as storytelling that influences their choices for the better."

The next step, Russell adds, would be a similar study with children not enrolled in a healthful lifestyle program. "It’s also equally important to include boys. Obesity is not just affecting girls."

-- Jeannine Stein

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