UMMS scientist reports declining obesity among Mass. students

By Ellie Castano

UMass Medical School Communications

October 18, 2013
Work from UMass Medical School associate professor Wenjun Li, PhD, shows a small but significant decline in childhood obesity in Massachusetts.

As Massachusetts public schools continue to grapple with how to effectively but sensitively intervene with students and families facing obesity, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued a report that indicates policies adopted in 2009 are already having an impact.

As reported in the Boston Globe on Oct. 17, UMass Medical School associate professor Wenjun Li, PhD, in collaboration with Massachusetts Department of Public Health colleagues led by Thomas Land, PhD, analyzed data from nearly 1 million student BMI records from 2009 to 2013 and reported a small but significant decline in childhood overweight and obesity prevalence. Overall, the rate has gone from 34.3 percent in 2009 to 30.6 percent in 2013. Declines were greatest among elementary school children.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen a significant decline in childhood obesity rates statewide in Massachusetts, and the decline appears to be accelerating,” said Dr. Li. “Our state’s large scale public health and policy interventions made a positive impact on childhood obesity.”

While the report also shows that rates of obesity vary considerably by school district, median household income, demographics and also by age and gender, there was a “significant downward trend in prevalence across the state in both gender and in all grades,” according to the report.

Li is hopeful that the trend can continue.

“While the whole country is frustrated with obesity prevention and curbing the raising obesity epidemic, the commonwealth’s positive experience raises new hope and boosts our confidence: We can and will succeed through persistent, orchestrated, societal efforts.”

In his opinion, Li believes there a number of things that can be done.

“We can continue, and perhaps, enhance or increase funding for our public school obesity prevention programs,” said Li. He suggests that such efforts might include healthier dining options in schools and banning sugar-sweetened beverages; increasing physical activity/education classes; educating children (and parents) about healthy living; retaining/increasing support from school leadership, teachers and nurses; strengthening support from town/city leaders, and town/city education committees; and most importantly, gaining and taking advantage of parent support such that the effects of public school obesity prevention programs can be sustained and extended beyond the school hours and boundaries.

Read the full Boston Globe story here: Child obesity rates drop in Mass.

Download a PDF of the report in poster form.

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