Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Research Article

Symposium on ‘Nutrition and health in children and adolescents’ Session 4: Obesity prevention in children and adolescents The effect of physical activity on body fatness in children and adolescents

A meeting of the Nutrition Society hosted by the Irish Section was held on 14–16 June 2006 at University College Cork, Cork, Republic of Ireland

Kirsten L. Renniea1 c1, Jonathan C. K. Wellsa2, Tracy A. McCaffreya1 and M. Barbara E. Livingstonea1

a1 Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health, School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Ulster, Coleraine BT52 1SA, UK

a2 MRC Childhood Nutrition Research Centre, Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK


With the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity, there is an urgent need to identify risk factors that are amenable to preventative action. However, there is a remarkable lack of consistency between studies that have investigated the relationships between measurements of physical activity and energy expenditure and body fatness in children. This disparity could be because energy intake is a more important determinant in preventing obesity. Alternatively, some of the conflicting results could be related to methodological limitations in assessing activity and body composition. Erroneous conclusions may be drawn if physical activity energy expenditure is not adjusted for differences in body composition, or body fat is not appropriately adjusted for body size. For public health purposes it may be more informative to evaluate the amount and intensity of physical activity required to prevent fat-mass gain than to assess energy expended in physical activity. The lack of consensus in the cut-off points applied to define intensity levels is severely hindering comparisons between studies using accelerometers that have examined relationships between activity intensity and body fatness. Thus, it is not currently possible to develop a firm evidence base on which to establish physical activity recommendations until the limitations are addressed and more prospective studies undertaken. In order to turn research into effective prevention strategies a clearer understanding of the psycho-social, behavioural and environmental factors that influence activity is needed, including the interactions between physical activity and other behaviours such as time spent sedentary, sleeping and eating.