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Study: Teens not meeting nutrition, physical activity guidelines

April 27, 2023

Only one-quarter of teens get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity and almost half skip eating fruits or vegetables daily, a new study found.

These three nutrition and physical activity behaviors were among 11 that researchers studied in teens, none of which improved from 2019 to 2021.

“These findings are particularly concerning because of the association between poor dietary behaviors and insufficient physical activity and numerous chronic health conditions and poor mental health,” authors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote in a new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The data come from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a nationally representative survey of U.S. high school students. Reflecting on the past seven days of eating habits, teens reported the following:

  • 75% did not eat breakfast daily,
  • 47% did not eat fruit or drink 100% fruit juice daily,
  • 45% did not eat vegetables daily,
  • 44% drank less than three glasses of water a day,
  • 15% drank sugar-sweetened soda daily and
  • 11% drank a sports drink daily.

The percentages not eating fruit, vegetables or breakfast daily increased from 2019 to 2021, while other habits stayed the same, according to the study. Authors said the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may have led some students to eat unhealthy food.

Females were more likely to report negative behaviors around fruit, water and breakfast compared to males. Males were more likely to report drinking sugar-sweetened soda and sports drinks daily.

Broken down by race, Asian students reported the lowest rates of poor dietary behaviors. Black teens had higher rates of three of the five poor dietary behaviors compared to Hispanic, White and multiracial students.

Teens also answered questions about their physical activity over the past seven days and reported the following:

  • 49% played on a sports team,
  • 45% did strength training at least three days a week,
  • 24% were physically active at least 60 minutes per day,
  • 19% attend physical education classes five days a week when they are in school and
  • 16% met both aerobic and strength training guidelines.

Males had higher rates than females in all five categories, but authors said there was not a pattern by race.

From 2019 to 2021, there were declines in the rates of attending daily physical education, strength training at least three days a week and playing on a sports team. Authors said pandemic disruptions likely played a role. However, they still were troubled by the low rate of recommended daily physical activity.

“Not meeting national physical activity guidelines means students are not receiving the multiple physical and mental health benefits of physical activity (e.g. reducing stress, anxiety, and depression) and preventing various chronic disease risk factors,” authors wrote.

They also lamented that students were missing out on opportunities to develop social skills, communication skills and teamwork.

Authors encouraged schools to participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, offer multiple ways to access these meals and increase vegetable consumption through school-based gardening programs and nutrition education. They also suggested programs like Active People, Healthy Nation and Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program.

The study was one of 10 the CDC released Thursday analyzing data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Others covered parental monitoring, witnessing gun violence, housing stability, suicide, sexual behaviors, dating violence and substance use. Earlier this year, the CDC released data from the survey showing teen girls are experiencing record high levels of violence and persistent sadness.




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