Physical activity lacking for food-insecure Oregon rural children

Kathy Gunter is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the CPHHS

Many rural Oregon children living in food-insecure homes aren’t getting enough physical activity, according to a new study.

The study is published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports.

In a sample of 144 families in three counties–Clackamas, Columbia and Klamath–40 percent were determined by OSU researchers to be at risk for food insecurity, which describes a socioeconomic condition where households have limited or uncertain access to food of adequate quantity or quality.

Among the food-insecure households, more families reported low readiness to provide opportunities for their children to be active outside of the school day.

“We interpret this to mean many of Oregon’s rural families at risk for food insecurity are also struggling to provide physical activity opportunities for their children,” says Kathy Gunter, an OSU Extension Service physical activity specialist and lead author on the study.

“Children living in rural areas are known to have higher risk for obesity compared to their urban counterparts, and the disparity is likely influenced by numerous factors, including their diet and amount of physical activity. There are measures to clearly indicate whether someone has enough to eat and feed their family. But in this study, we present a new concept: ‘physical activity insecurity.’ We already know that food insecurity is associated with poverty, and we believe the same may be true for physical activity insecurity.”

The families recruited by OSU for a survey conducted in 2013 were from schools in the towns and elementary schools of Estacada, Molalla, Clatskanie, Rainier, Bonanza and Chiloquin.

Families were classified as food insecure if they responded “sometimes true” or “often true” to either of two statements:

  • Within the past 12 months we worried if our food would run out before we got money to buy more.
  • Within the past 12 months the food we bought just didn’t last, and we didn’t have money to get more.

Statements about physical activity included:

  • In our family we encourage our children to be active every day.
  • In our family we make time for physical activity. We also provide support so our children can play actively and do organized physical activities and/or sports.
  • In our family we find ways to be active together.
  • In our family we limit the time children can spend watching TV/computer and playing electronic games.

Current research shows that children are getting less than 20 minutes of health-promoting physical activity in a seven-hour school day, which is woefully inadequate, Kathy says. Both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Heart Association recommend 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Kathy offers one way to potentially increase rural children’s physical activity: A program similar to Screen & Intervene, which evolved from several efforts led by the Oregon Childhood Hunger Coalition and OSU Extension Specialist Anne Hoisington. Under Screen & Intervene, health care providers ask their patients questions about their food situation at home. These patients could also be asked questions about their children’s physical activity, Kathy says.

“A caveat to that is parents always think their kids are more active than they are,” she says. “They also think their kids are way more active in school than they actually are.”

In the districts OSU studied, students were traveling on a school bus between 30 minutes to 1½ hours a day. That travel time eliminated two potentially low-cost or no-cost options for physical activity: before- and after-school programs.

“These kids are dependent on their families to provide those opportunities or encourage those opportunities but many of the parents aren’t able to provide those opportunities,” Kathy says. “We need to ask the right questions to understand why.”

The schools were part of GROW Healthy Kids and Communities, a multi-state initiative led by OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences Extension Service. From 2011 through 2016, GROW was implemented in Oregon and in five additional western states.

The study, and the GROW initiative, were funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, through its Childhood Obesity Prevention Challenge Area.