Obese Kids Getting Hardened Arteries

Exercise -- If Kept Up -- Can Undo Damage to Blood Vessels

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 31, 2006 -- Obese 14-year-olds already have hardening of the arteries, an early warning of heart disease risk.

That finding comes from German researchers looking deep into the Pandora's box of childhood obesityobesity. The latest bad news is that by the time they reach their teens, obese children's blood vessels already are hardening on the outside and thickening on the inside.

However, the study holds hope. It shows that when obese teens undergo an aggressive, six-month exercise program, they can undo the damage to their arteries.

They also lose weight, cut their cholesterol and blood fat levels, and lower their blood pressure.

"Atherosclerosis -- hardening of the arteries -- starts during childhood in the presence of such risk factors as obesity and sedentary lifestyle," the study's lead researcher, Andreas Alexander Meyer, MD, says in a news release.

"We think that 90 minutes of exercise, three times per week, is the minimum children need to reduce their [heart disease] risk," he adds.

Swimming, Sports, and Walking

Meyer, a pediatric heart specialist at the University of Rostock Children's Hospital in Rostock, Germany, enrolled 96 obese boys and girls in the study.

The kids ranged in age from 11 to 16, with an average age of 14. None got even a half hour of exercise per week.

Compared with 35 normal-weight kids, the obese kids showed alarming warning signs. Most dramatically, their blood vessels were stiffening and getting narrow.

Unless something changed, these kids were on their way to short, unhealthy lives.

A Solution

For six months, 50 of the obese kids were assigned to a structured exercise program.

They did 60 minutes of swimming and water aerobics on Mondays. They played team sports for 90 minutes on Wednesdays. And they walked for 60 minutes on Fridays.

Under the observation of coaches and physical therapists, the exercises intensified to the degree individual teens could tolerate them.

Only about two-thirds of the kids made it through the exercise program.

But those who did saw encouraging changes:

  • The kids' arteries became more flexible, allowing them to carry more oxygen-rich blood throughout the body -- and making exercise easier.
  • The inner layer of their arteries shrank, allowing increased blood flow and lowering the chance of plaque buildup.
  • They lost weight.
  • They cut their high blood levels of cholesterol and fats.
  • They lowered their blood pressure.

Continued

The study's findings appear in the Nov. 7 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.The Trick: Motivating Kids

Meyer warns, however, that these benefits will disappear if the kids don't keep up regular exercise. Obese kids, he notes, lack motivation to exercise and tend not to persevere once exercise becomes strenuous.

"It's important that children enjoy exercise, so we recommend games like soccer, football, basketball, and swimming -- especially for obese children," Meyer says.

Fun or not, it takes time to get obese children to want to exercise, says Albert P. Rocchini, MD, a pediatric heart specialist the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. Rocchini was not involved in the German study.

"We want young people to understand that now is the time to start dealing with health issues before they become permanent," Rocchini says in a news release. "But it takes time to get through to them."

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 31, 2006

Sources

SOURCES: Meyer, A. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Nov. 7, 2006; vol 9: pp 1865-1870. News release, American College of Cardiology.
© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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