3Qs: Addressing the kind of growth America doesn’t need

A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that only 15 percent of high-school students exercise enough, and roughly one-third drink two or more sugary beverages each day. Here, Carmen Sceppa, an associate professor of health sciences in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences who studies nutrition and exercise, assesses the nation’s growing obesity epidemic.

What is your reaction to this study?

It’s a complicated issue. Researchers, teachers, communities and government at all levels are trying hard to find a remedy, but there’s not one solution to the problem.Programs such as the “Let’s Move!” initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, for example, aim to increase physical activity and improve healthy eating among youth.The CDC conducts regular risk behavior surveys that ask children to describe their level of physical activity in and out of school. In the 2009 report, 28 percent of girls were found to be doing less than the recommended 60 minutes of exercise a day. More schools have begun to scale back or cut physical education classes from school, which worries my colleagues who work with youth and in sports medicine.

How can this trend be reversed?

I think it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach. It’s not enough to tell someone that he or she should exercise more, eat healthier and watch less TV. An individual’s surroundings — where he or she lives and goes to school, and what’s available in the community — also play a big role. These environments must be conducive to increasing physical activity and providing healthier eating choices.As a society, it’s also important to have realistic goals when reversing the trend. It’s not going to happen overnight.

What impact does new technology have on a young person’s drive to exercise?

New technology has enormous benefits. But some, such as smart phones and computer games, have compounded the problem. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “screen time,” including watching television and movies and playing computer games, should be limited to no more than one or two hours a day. I would add texting to that list. Studies show that too much “screen time” can lead not only to obesity but also to other behavioral problems, including poor sleep and poor academic performance. Clearly, a lack of physical activity is a societal problem that goes beyond obesity.

Sceppa is a co-principal investigator of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures initiative aimed at curbing childhood obesity in several Boston neighborhoods. To learn more, visit http://www.northeastern.edu/healthykids.