Lack of physical activity, an unhealthy diet, and too much time spent on screen-based activities contribute to adolescent obesity and early development of heart disease risk factors, as well as other health problems.
Researchers in the Health Behavior Branch of the Division of Intramural Population Health Research surveyed a nationally representative sample of U.S. adolescents about their daily amounts of physical activity, screen-based activity, and healthy and unhealthy food consumption. They also asked the adolescents to describe their emotional health, body image, and general satisfaction with life.
The survey showed the adolescents’ diet and activity patterns fall into 3 general groups:
- The healthful group (27%) had the highest rates of exercising 5 or more days a week, and was least likely to spend time with screen-based activities. It was the most likely group to eat fruits and vegetables at least once a day, and was least likely to consume sweets, soft drinks, chips, and fries. Members of the group were the most likely to be normal weight. Also, these adolescents reported the highest rates in life satisfaction and the lowest rates in symptoms of depression.
- The unhealthful group (26%) was more likely than the other groups to report screen-based activities more than 2 hours a day. It consumed the most sweets, chips, fries, and soft drinks. However, despite consuming a lot of high calorie foods, these adolescents were more likely to be underweight and to report needing to put on weight. They also were more likely to report symptoms of depression and poor physical health.
- The typical group (47%) was the least likely to exercise 5 or more times a week. It was more likely to spend time on screen-based activities than the healthful group, but less likely to do so than the unhealthful group. This group rarely ate fruits and vegetables, but also rarely consumed sweets, chips, fries, or soft drinks. Adolescents in this group were more likely than those in the other 2 groups to be overweight or obese and to be dissatisfied with their body image.
These results indicate that about 3 out of 4 adolescents didn’t have a healthy dietary and activity behavior pattern. Moreover, the researchers’ results suggest that adolescents in the typical group—the one most likely to be overweight—could benefit more from additional exercise than from efforts to reduce consumption of high-calorie foods (PMID: 23642973).