Are eating and exercise behaviors at school contributing to adolescent obesity in the United States?

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Adolescent obesity, Schools, Public policy, Eating, Exercise, Adolescent, Obesity

Subject Categories

Public Administration | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Over the past 25 years childhood obesity in the United States has increased significantly, resulting in 31.5 percent of children aged 6-19 reported as at risk of overweight or obese. In response, public policy makers are targeting schools in hopes of influencing youth eating and exercise behaviors. Obesity curbing policies--such as eliminating school vending machines or increasing physical education requirements-- have been implemented in 22 states.

Although research has made strides in identifying changes in food intake and physical activities that may explain today's prevalence of youth obesity, evidence on the effectiveness of many proposed interventions in schools is lacking and mixed at best. This research seeks empirical evidence to support (or reject) propositions that student eating and physical activities are influenced by school environments, and in turn, to determine if these behaviors are related to an increase in adolescent body mass index (BMI). Using new data collected in 2004-05 as part of the National Evaluation of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Urban Health Initiative, this study finds that some school policies--such as vending machines--influence student eating behaviors, but these behaviors do not lead to increased weight. This study explores the effects of eating school meals, buying snacks, attending PE, and walking or biking to school on weight measures.

The only hint that school behaviors affect weight outcomes is for snacking among females. A two-stage least squares model indicates that females have an increased probability of being obese (0.07) when they report buying one additional snack per week (at the 10 percent level). So few effects for school behavior variables make it difficult to ignore that home and neighborhood variables are much larger and consistently significant across statistical models. Parental BMI and parental education have effects of up to 2.5 pounds for every additional unit increase in parental BMI and 1.1 pound for an additional year of education. Given the consistent effects of home factors, it is worth considering policy interventions that target parents and home environments, in addition to schools, if policy makers hope to reduce obesity among adolescents in the United States.


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