a child sleeping
A new study will explore the role of childhood routines, such as sleep schedules and activity, in weight regulation.

Can consistent sleep, eating and activity routines help children avoid excessive weight gain? Chantelle Hart, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, is launching a study, funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, to explore a possible connection.

“We know it’s important how much sleep kids get, how many calories they're taking in, how physically active they are. What we’re trying to understand better is how much the timing and consistency of those behaviors might also be important for weight regulation in children,” says Hart, a research scientist at Temple’s Center for Obesity Research and Education.  

Studies with adults have demonstrated that when sleep and eating behaviors are aligned with circadian rhythms, the biological cycle that evolved to make people alert or sleepy during a 24-hour period, there are associated improvements in glucose and weight regulation. “When the timing of sleep and the timing and distribution of eating are aligned with someone's underlying circadian rhythm–meaning you're awake and eating when your biology says you should be awake and eating–that seems to be associated with better weight regulation,” Hart explains. 

Childhood obesity has become epidemic in the United States, putting children and adolescents at risk for poor health and social stigma and often leading to similar issues in adulthood. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity prevalence has reached 13.4% among 2-5 year olds, 20.3% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 21.2% among 12- to 19-year-olds. It also disproportionately affects children from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  

“We're hypothesizing that children who live in under-resourced communities could be at increased risk for disruptions to their behavioral rhythms,” Hart says. “If, for example, you're in a neighborhood that might have higher rates of crime it may influence your ability to get a good night's sleep or go outside and play regularly.”

Hart’s team plans to closely track activities of 176 children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. The focus will be on early school-aged children ages five to eight. Five 10-day assessments over the course of 16 months will measure multiple factors including the timing and consistency of children’s sleep, the timing of their physical and sedentary activities, their eating, and timing of their circadian clock. Measures also will be made of participants’ home and neighborhood environments regarding food insecurity, neighborhood safety, and other factors. The researchers will record changes in children’s height, weight and percent body fat and examine associations over time.

“We are hoping that this work can build upon previous findings to help us identify some novel targets for prevention and treatment of childhood obesity," Hart says. "We are also hoping that findings may have important implications for factors that contribute to health disparities.”