ScienceWise - May/Jun 2009

How Do I feel About Myself?

Exploring the Relationship Between Body Image and Body Mass in Kids

A large number of Australians are becoming overweight, a situation that will inevitably lead to poorer health and increased burden on Medicare. Of particular concern to many doctors is the increasing proportion of young children with weight problems. However aside from the physical effects of being overweight, the condition also has a significant impact on a child’s psychological wellbeing.

Professor Don Byrne from the ANU Department of Psychology is part of a team of scientists engaged in one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of the health and wellbeing of Australian children to date. The “Lifestyle Of Our Kids” project, known as LOOK, has been underway since 2005 and involves around 850 children in the Canberra region. Beginning at 8 years old, the kids have been regularly assessed by health professionals and had their body mass, cardiovascular fitness and many other health parameters measured. In parallel with this, the kids have also been undertaking a series of psychological questionnaires designed by Professor Byrne to determine their psychological wellbeing, self esteem and body image.

“One of the things we are especially interested to know is how a person’s sense of body image develops?” Professor Byrne explains. “There have been quite a number of studies of body image in children with disabilities and physical problems, but surprisingly few on normal, average children.”

To be fully effective the study needs to follow these kids right through to adolescence, but even in the four years it has been currently running, it’s beginning to turn up some interesting results. Perhaps not surprisingly there is a fairly strong correlation between increasing body mass and decreasing body image.  “Clearly the kids have taken on board the strong messages in the media about the health implications of being overweight,” Says Professor Byrne, “But the surprising thing is that for the most part, while kids may feel bad about the way they look, they don’t seem very motivated to do anything about it, such as engage in more exercise or eat more healthy food.”

Professor Byrne feels that this is a key area for further study. “If we can better understand how kid’s perception of health risks leads to the development of poor body image, perhaps we can develop better strategies to help them take responsibility for their own health.”

Another interesting finding of the study is that girls generally have a poorer body image than boys with equivalent body mass and generally this declines further as the girls grow older.

The LOOK project is not limited to just observing the kids, it also has an intervention element. A randomly selected half of the children are being given a structured physical exercise program by fully trained fitness professionals provided by the Bluearth Foundation – a not-for-profit organization  focused on improving health through participation in physical activity.
It’s too early to draw any final conclusions, but the data so far indicate that kids who participate in the Bluearth fitness program experience a significant positive effect on their body image. They also experience less negative moods and depression. Interestingly though, to date, there hasn’t been such a large difference in the body mass data between the two groups. There may however be an improvement in the physical fitness data from the intervention group as the study progresses but the data analysis is at too early a stage to be sure.

“We want to find out whether early exposure to structured physical exercise establishes health facilitating behaviours more broadly in young people,” says Byrne. “Do they, for example, develop  a healthier attitude towards diet, smoking, and use of alcohol and other drugs? Would we have a healthier population in the long run?”

The first five years of the psychological element of this study have been funded by an Australian Research Council grant, but that funding runs out next year. ‘This is one of the world’s most useful and important data banks in the area of child health,” Professor Byrne says, “and it’s vital that we don’t loose the opportunity to monitor these kids as they make the transition to adolescence and high school.”

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