TV viewing has been linked to metabolic-risk factors in youth. However, it is unclear whether this association is independent of physical activity (PA) and obesity.
Methods and Findings
We did a population-based, cross-sectional study in 9- to 10-y-old and 15- to 16-y-old boys and girls from three regions in Europe (n = 1,921). We examined the independent associations between TV viewing, PA measured by accelerometry, and metabolic-risk factors (body fatness, blood pressure, fasting triglycerides, inverted high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, glucose, and insulin levels). Clustered metabolic risk was expressed as a continuously distributed score calculated as the average of the standardized values of the six subcomponents. There was a positive association between TV viewing and adiposity (p = 0.021). However, after adjustment for PA, gender, age group, study location, sexual maturity, smoking status, birth weight, and parental socio-economic status, the association of TV viewing with clustered metabolic risk was no longer significant (p = 0.053). PA was independently and inversely associated with systolic and diastolic blood pressure, fasting glucose, insulin (all p < 0.01), and triglycerides (p = 0.02). PA was also significantly and inversely associated with the clustered risk score (p < 0.0001), independently of obesity and other confounding factors.
TV viewing and PA may be separate entities and differently associated with adiposity and metabolic risk. The association between TV viewing and clustered metabolic risk is mediated by adiposity, whereas PA is associated with individual and clustered metabolic-risk indicators independently of obesity. Thus, preventive action against metabolic risk in children may need to target TV viewing and PA separately.
A study of over 1,900 European children showed that TV viewing and physical activity in children are separately associated with obesity and metabolic risk.
Childhood obesity is a rapidly growing problem. Twenty-five years ago, overweight children were rare. Now, 155 million of the world's children are overweight, and 30–45 million are obese. Both conditions are diagnosed by comparing a child's body mass index (BMI; weight divided by height squared) with the average BMI for their age and sex. Being overweight during childhood is worrying because it is one of the so-called metabolic-risk factors that increase the chances of developing diabetes, heart problems, or strokes later in life. Other metabolic-risk factors are fatness around the belly, blood-fat disorders, high blood pressure, and problems with how the body uses insulin and blood sugar. Until recently, like obesity, these other metabolic-risk factors were seen only in adults, but now they are becoming increasingly common in children. In the US, 1 in 20 adolescents has metabolic syndrome—three or more of these risk factors. Environmental and behavioural changes have probably contributed to the increase in metabolic syndrome in children. As a group, they tend to be less physically active nowadays and they eat bigger portions of energy-dense foods more often. Increased TV viewing during childhood (and the use of other media such as computer games) has also been linked to increased obesity and to poorer health as an adult.
Why Was This Study Done?
One popular theory is that TV viewing may affect obesity and other metabolic-risk factors by displacing PA. Instead of playing in the yard after school, the theory suggests, children laze about in front of the TV. However, there is limited evidence to support this idea, and health professionals need to know whether TV viewing and PA are related, and how they affect metabolic-risk factors, in order to improve children's health. In this study, the researchers examined the associations between TV viewing, PA, and metabolic-risk factors in European children.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers enrolled nearly 2,000 children in two age groups from three areas in Europe. They measured the children's height and weight, estimated how fat they were by measuring skin fold thickness, measured their blood pressure, and examined the levels of glucose, insulin, and different fats in their blood. The children completed a computer questionnaire about the lengths of time for which they watched TV and how often they ate while doing so, and their PA was measured using a device called an accelerometer that each child wore for four days. When these data were analyzed statistically, the researchers found that TV viewing was slightly associated with clustered metabolic risk (the average of the individual metabolic-risk factors). This association was due to an association between TV viewing and obesity—the children who watched most TV tended to be the fattest children. However, TV viewing was not related to PA. The most active children were not necessarily those who watched least TV. Most importantly, PA was related to all individual risk factors except for obesity and with clustered metabolic risk. These associations were independent of obesity.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These results suggest that TV viewing does not damage children's health by displacing PA as popularly believed. The finding that the association between TV viewing and clustered metabolic-risk factors is mediated by obesity suggests that targeting behaviours like eating while watching TV might be a good way to improve children's health. Indeed, the researchers provide some evidence that eating while watching TV is associated with being overweight, but the results of this post hoc analysis—one that was not planned in advance—need to be confirmed. Another limitation of the study is the possibility that the children inaccurately reported their TV watching habits. Also, because measurements of metabolic-risk factors were made only once, it is impossible to say whether TV viewing or lack of PA actually causes an increase in metabolic-risk factors.
Nevertheless, these results strongly suggest that promoting PA is beneficial in relation to metabolic-risk factors, but less so in relation to obesity in childhood. TV viewing and PA should be treated as separate targets in programs designed to reverse the obesity and metabolic-syndrome epidemic in children.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0030488.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, information on overweight and obesity
International Obesity Taskforce, information on obesity and its prevention, particularly in childhood
Global Prevention Alliance, details of international efforts to halt the obesity epidemic and its associated chronic diseases
American Heart Association, information for patients and professionals on metabolic syndrome and children's health