Understanding differences between summer vs. school obesogenic behaviors of children: the structured days hypothesis

Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017 Jul 26;14(1):100. doi: 10.1186/s12966-017-0555-2.


Background: Although the scientific community has acknowledged modest improvements can be made to weight status and obesogenic behaviors (i.e., physical activity, sedentary/screen time, diet, and sleep) during the school year, studies suggests improvements are erased as elementary-age children are released to summer vacation. Emerging evidence shows children return to school after summer vacation displaying accelerated weight gain compared to the weight gained occurring during the school year. Understanding how summer days differ from when children are in school is, therefore, essential.

Discussion: There is limited evidence on the etiology of accelerated weight gain during summer, with few studies comparing obesogenic behaviors on the same children during school and summer. For many children, summer days may be analogous to weekend days throughout the school year. Weekend days are often limited in consistent and formal structure, and thus differ from school days where segmented, pre-planned, restrictive, and compulsory components exist that shape obesogenic behaviors. The authors hypothesize that obesogenic behaviors are beneficially regulated when children are exposed to a structured day (i.e., school weekday) compared to what commonly occurs during summer. This is referred to as the 'Structured Days Hypothesis' (SDH). To illustrate how the SDH operates, this study examines empirical data that compares weekend day (less-structured) versus weekday (structured) obesogenic behaviors in U.S. elementary school-aged children. From 190 studies, 155 (~80%) demonstrate elementary-aged children's obesogenic behaviors are more unfavorable during weekend days compared to weekdays.

Conclusion: In light of the SDH, consistent evidence demonstrates the structured environment of weekdays may help to protect children by regulating obesogenic behaviors, most likely through compulsory physical activity opportunities, restricting caloric intake, reducing screen time occasions, and regulating sleep schedules. Summer is emerging as the critical period where childhood obesity prevention efforts need to be focused. The SDH can help researchers understand the drivers of obesogenic behaviors during summer and lead to innovative intervention development.

Keywords: Children; Obesity; School; Summer.

MeSH terms

  • Body Weight
  • Child
  • Child Behavior*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Diet
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pediatric Obesity / epidemiology*
  • Prevalence
  • Schools
  • Seasons*
  • Sedentary Behavior
  • Sleep
  • Television
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Video Games
  • Weight Gain