How Sleep Can Help Win the War Against Obesity


There’s some great news in the fight against childhood obesity. A recently released federal report on obesity trends in adults and children in the United States found that rates of obesity among children aged 2 to 5 have dropped dramatically in the past decade, but that they’ve increased among teens. The study, conducted by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control, examined rates of obesity in children from infancy through adolescence as well as rates for adults, during the years 2003 to 2012. They found obesity among children ages 2 to 5 fell a striking 43% to 8.4% in 2012. This finding caught many by surprise. Earlier research indicated a leveling off of obesity rates in children with some more modest declines among certain age groups.

This is the first time we’ve seen a substantial drop in obesity in young children or in any age group. The hope is that a turnaround among this segment of the childhood population will prove lasting and will expand to other age groups as this generation of healthier weight grows older.

This news is also a terrific first sign of success in the effort to turn back the alarming rise in obesity in the United States. Until now, these efforts have shown little significant progress. In hopes of making this progress enduring, policymakers, physicians, parents and educators will likely continue emphasizing healthful, moderate eating habits and regular physical activity to fight childhood obesity. I hope they’ll also emphasize another, equally important strategy in maintaining a healthy weight: sleep.

Sleep has a powerful impact on obesity risk in children and adults. A compelling body of evidence tells us that how well we sleep, how long we sleep and the sleep habits we keep can affect one’s likelihood of developing obesity as early as infancy. The following recent research has shown the scope of sleep’s influence over children’s appetite, eating habits, and propensity to become overweight or obese:

  • Shorter sleep in infants increases the risk of being overweight at preschool age. Researchers determined that infants who sleep fewer than 12 hours nightly had twice the risk of being overweight by age 3.
  • Children age 4 and younger who sleep fewer than 10 hours a night are significantly more likely to be overweight five years later, according to a 2010 study.
  • A study of 5- and 6-year-olds found that rates of obesity declined as nightly sleep duration increased. Sleeping for longer than 11.5 hours a night cut the risk of obesity by more than half.
  • One study found that children who get ample sleep eat less during the day, weigh less, and have lower levels of the hormone leptin that changes appetite and metabolism.

One of the reasons this new research has been met with excitement is that children aged 2 to 5 are at a critical time in the development of healthy and unhealthy habits that can influence an individual’s risk of obesity for years to come. Obesity that starts in early childhood generally continues into adolescence and adulthood where it is accompanied by the health risks of being overweight, which include diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

In addition to setting good habits during waking hours, children at this early age also develop of healthy or unhealthy sleep habits. Establishing good sleep routines that promote high-quality sleep, include consistent bedtimes, and provide ample time for sleep, can have a lasting impact on a child’s health. Time spent building strong sleep routines for young children pays off in many important ways. This healthy sleep lowers the risk of obesity, helps with language, intellectual and behavioral development.

It’s important to note that children ages 2 to 5 were the only segment of the population with a significant downturn in obesity rates. Obesity rates in other segments of the population have either remained stable or continue to climb. With a more than third of adults and 17% of children currently obese in the United States, we’ve got a long way to go.

Everyone from birth to adulthood can suffer the ill effects of insufficient sleep, including the increased risk for obesity. These new figures are encouraging, and reason to double our efforts to change the obesity trends among all age groups, here in the United States and around the world. It’s time to make this truly a turning tide—and a lasting one. For that, sleep is a critical part of the strategy.